Any European with half a brain in their head (or American, or Russian, or Japanese, or practically any country that has raided and colonized other places), will have some ambivalence about their heritage. I myself have this feeling intensely. So while my eyes might brim with tears when hearing Elgar’s stirring Nimrod, every time (is this ‘patriotism’ or just an exile’s love for his family?); even though I might adore the English (though in reality, largely Indian) perfectionism of Merchant Ivory productions – A Room With A View; The Remains Of The Day; Maurice; or revel in the delightfully addictive (if unconvincing) melodramas of the redoubtable Downtown Abbey; love wandering though the beautiful stately homes of ‘Great Britain’ and their dream-inducing gardens when I go home periodically; and always enjoy a day trip to Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon (just a half an hour or so from my family’s house), there is also a part of me, a deep part of me, that still questions it.
It is true that no other landscape or countryside has ever appealed to much as the English (nothing compares for me to a reedy river or the magic of the woods; all my childhood dreams and fantasies began there), yet there is still much I dislike about the land of my birth (see this piece on London) much as there is about Japan, Italy, or any other place I have lived in: I am never blind to a place’s flaws, nor to its beauty, but absorb what I like, and filter out what I don’t. This, to me, is simply commonsensical. Living in Japan for almost two decades has also given me a lot of perspective, in some ways, and also distance, in others, from what it means to be ‘British’ (though for some reason, I really don’t like that term; I find the word quite ugly, and I actually think of myself as ‘English’). It is complicated. There are contradictions. There are times here, even after all of these years, when the intractable blank stare of the most stubborn and alien aspects of Japanese culture make me also retreat into my own inner shell as a reaction, and I realize at these moments that I am truly ‘English’, that that side of myself is almost fixed within me in some ways at the psychological and cellular level. And part of me, in truth, quite likes that. That cultural backbone gives you something to fall back on. Yet we ‘British’ so often, also, want to get away; are so very critical of the place that we were born in. Why? The British Isles have one of the biggest diasporas in the world – statistically, as percentage of population, yet while slagging off and criticizing our own culture (which is in itself a very British thing to do: intransigence, irreverence, and punkish rebelliousness being one part of the culture I am genuinely proud of, as it leads to the creativity that leads to a Kate Bush or a David Bowie; unique, brilliant creatures who couldn’t have come from anywhere else), we also live in our little enclaves of chiding Britishness, with our imported cheddar cheese; our baked beans; our cups of tea, and Marmite on toast.
‘Britishness’ is still, culturally, like Frenchness and Italianness, a very marketable cultural global commodity, particularly when it relates to the British past, the Golden Age of Empire, of unquestioned global hegemony, when Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ and where the sun never set, as we plundered our way across the globe and proudly, and superciliously, and superbly, conquered the ‘natives’ in places we had no right to be, and where ladies in white lace dresses and ridiculous, affected upper class accents shielded themselves from the sun and fainted, cruelly, in the Malabah caves, and the wind and waves lashed our ships, and gentleman, smoking cigars, wearing tweeds and in silks and breeches or braces or whatever kind of costume was the order of the day, discussed our inexorable place in the world; a position that long ago slunk to nothing but a historical footnote, and which is still presumed to be the essential cause of the current malaise that grips the nation.
Beaufort London, a new range of perfumes released this year, plunges us – unironically on the whole (though I suspect a healthy dose of theatricality, having perused the company’s website and its self-titled header of a ‘tempestuous British perfumery’) headlong and unequivocally into a sea of nostalgic Britishness, in a collection of new scents that is called ‘Come Hell Or High Water’, a trio that celebrates the vanished indomitability of the former Empire with its smoky smells of mouldering holds and flinted gunpowder, the loot from the ‘tropics’ smouldering in the caskets; spices, liquor; chests of teas, aromatics, and all the blood, sweat and tears that were needed to keep it all together. This has, of course, become quite a familiar trope in niche perfumery: there is plenty a whiskey, rum and tobacco scent out there, now, to the extent that the genre has almost become a cliché: enough so that, if you wanted to , you could probably wear a different cargo hold each week of the year and walk around smelling as though you were born, unhindered, in a humidor, or slept, quite happily and disdainfully each night, aromatized, sodomized, and whiplashed, in a barrel.
The collection (and rarely have I seen a sample selection so sumptuously packaged) is, I have to say, quite good though; deeper, more held-together and more convincing than many a thin niche release: these perfumes are quite virile, compelling and atmospheric, and redolent of what was intended: a (possibly not quite tongue-in-cheek enough for me) celebration of maritime adventure and warfare (I805 explicitly refers to the year that Lord Nelson died in battle), the year his body, after the Battle of Trafalgar, was then shipped back to London, placed in a cask replenished with brandy and mixed with camphor and myrrh, before being transferred to a lead-lined coffin in the capital filled with the spirits of wine. According to Beaufort, ‘powerful accords of smoke, gunpowder, blood and brandy’ are blended with a ‘sea-spray’ accord and citruses that are designed to be bold and provocative, as indeed they most definitely are. This is the most difficult of the scents in the collection for me, and deliberately so: the blend is extremely strong and intense (at least initially – its bluster soon wears off); the less appealing, slightly ozonic notes used to create the sanguine, bloodied notes of wounded sailors and the sooten blasts of death overidden by a very effective, impactful note of ruddied bonfire that I think could smell great on a dandyish eccentric, much like the creator of the company himself, Leo Crabtree (actually the drummer for The Prodigy, would you believe, a rockstar with Byronic pretensions, who makes me feel that this whole line of perfumes has quite a high note of camp involved ( I do, sincerely hope so – just look at his getup: can this all be taken seriously? Is all this faded ‘Britishness’ not something of a conceptual performance? )
Still, there are plenty of people, the world over, in the New World and beyond, who have a bent for all things Jeeves & Wooster and Sherlock Holmes-y, who do go for all this deep mahogany period Anglomania and spiffing upper class baloney, and a dash or three of I805 on a favoured cardigan could definitely, actually, smell rather fantastic on the right person, a savourous aroma of smoke and nostalgia that would follow a would -be gentleman quite splendiferously into a room and have people wandering what on earth he was wearing ( I also approve of the pricing: at £95:00, for the obviously quality of the formula, this strikes me as reasonable).
Coeur De Noir, the much more subdued of the bunch, to me smells like a gently smokey and aromatic lavender scent but is apparently composed mainly of notes of ‘black ink; leather bound books; papers lost and found; birch tar, vanilla tobacco, labdanum and West Indian spiced rum’ and explores the relationship between nautical art and the adventures that inspires it: Turner; libraries, tattoos, and all things sailorish, and I would say that this is in many ways the most approachable of the three. It is suave and indeed papery, if a touch dour, although Duncan wore it for a day and, though imperfect, we both felt that it held its own throughout its duration and was nice right even right into the drydown (not something you can say that often these days with contemporary purchases). The scent has a quite ‘gentlemanly’ air to it that works quite well; again, terribly British (the perfumers really have captured those aspects very effectively with these perfumes), if not quite appealing enough, ultimately, to fully capture my imagination.
Like the globe roving sailors of yore, I was also, myself, always, from a young child, drawn to travel and ‘foreign lands’. Yes, I adored our family holidays to Cornwall or Devon, or Wales, or Bournemouth – sanddunes and the sea, and cream teas, and summer cottages, and souvenir shops in kagouls on rainy days on the seaside promenade, but I was, also, entirely entranced by the postcards that my maternal grandparents would send from their trips around Europe – from Spain; Greece, Yugoslavia, Portugal, occasionally Italy, but particularly Spain. I would obsessively pore over the unknown scripts that were imprinted on the postage stamps; stare at them, touch them, and wonder what they meant. When we would pick my grandparents up at the airport; tanned, smiling, relaxed, though sour, always, to be back (they were never happier than when they were holidaying abroad and seemed to live the fifty remaining weeks of the year they were back in rainy England for those two, almost mythical weeks they would again spend overseas), I would almost smell the foreignness on them, yearn for my souvenir (Pepe the donkey is still particularly memorable), and wonder what it must be actually like to go to a place where you couldn’t understand what people were saying, something that was indelibly fascinating to me, and the reason why I was practically champing at the bit to study a foreign language, any foreign language, the second I got to junior school.
From an early age I was also branded as ‘unpatriotic’ (oh don’t get me started on patriotism, and, far worse, nationalism (though how different are they, in reality?) the thing I hate most in the world – aside of air conditioning – mainly because, lets say as one example, I wouldn’t automatically plump unthinkingly for the British contender in the Eurovision Song Contest, or something along those ridiculous lines: it was genuinely astonishing for me, as a young and sentient boy, that I was expected, no, that I was commanded, to want the British entry to win, even if it was rubbish, even if it was undeserving, even if it was a shame to the nation, just simply for the reason that the song had its origins in Great Britain. There is a very hardcore streak of philosophical logic than runs through my brain, and there always was, and I knew from the outset that this stank, completely, as a biased, and illogical way of thinking. Naturally, when the song was the best, like when Bucks Fizz won in I98I with their ‘outrageous’ skirt ripping routine, there was an extra buzz in the fact that they were from the UK ( I am not, like the majority of people, entirely immune to the ‘spirit of the nation’), but if the song was crap and I preferred the one from Switzerland or Austria, then that was the one that I was going to go for and everybody else could simply be damned and go and fuck themselves ( though I would never have used such language when I was only ten). I suppose safe in the home of my Tia Maria quaffing grandparents who heretically preferred Spain to England anyway, my outré pop ideologies would not have been entirely misunderstood; as ultimately, my granddad, who was a Labour voting working class man to the core and is famous in our family for his outburst during the Queen’s speech one Christmas when he suddenly shouted out ‘Bugger the queen!’ much to my father’s consternation and my siblings and I’s delight, was always very different in his politics to my other grandfather, and like me, had a strong anti-authoritarian streak in him. Yes, the Euro-man in me was probably very much influenced by these maternal grandparents, whose travels across the English channel and beyond into the garlic-eating, castanet-clacking continent fed my brain with feverish anticipation and had me conjugating foreign verbs by myself ( I had a French dictionary for my ninth birthday) before I even entered the classroom.
If packaged tour trips to Benidorm and the Costa Brava were the seedlings of my latent need to travel, though, the far more potent inspirations to go around the world most certainly came instead from my paternal grandfather, who was a lieutenant in the navy, who had travelled the world on his ships, been to Japan and Indian and Africa, and whose house was filled with trinkets and ebony statues from far away places that stirred the imagination no end: almost sinister in their elongated exoticism, inexplicable to a boy who knew nothing about them but who could feel their strange and alluring energy. This stern, and somewhat undemonstrative grandfather had really travelled; he was a true adventurer and had, according to family legend but also in actual fact, run away from home at the age of fourteen to scrub the decks of ships, and had then worked his way up, through the British navy ranks, to Chief Gunning Officer later on. He fought in Okinawa in World War II (he loathed the Japanese (‘the cruellest race on earth‘), and would have been probably been quite horrified to know that I ended up living here I think, (though he would still, I am sure, have explicitly understood the wanderlust that he definitely passed down in his DNA to my globetrotting father – who travels, constantly – and also to me.)
Because although I can fully understand the joys of home and the nest, and love spending my time in the house at the weekend just relaxing and not stepping outside, at the same time, a complete lack of curiosity in other places is also, to me ultimately, totally incomprehensible. Because how can you at least not want to know, to experience them yourself, to feel the differences from where you are and from other, unexplored places? In this regard, I suppose, I think that though I deplore the expansionism and the colonialism of the Europeans and the British (even though I am usually quite often in awe of the legacies aesthetically, be it the Dutch colonial buildings of Jakarta or the French boulevards of Hanoi) at the same time, I can almost understand the desire to explore and commandeer; to stray into other lands, to go beyond the limiting horizons of the White Cliffs of Dover, even if, in reality, that is where we should have stayed.
East India, the final perfume in Beaufort’s trio of ‘Britishness’, explores these feelings extensively, the fascination with empire, and a particular, buttoned-up but sexy underneath form of idealized, British masculinity, and it is in some ways the most appealing to me of the three perfumes (even when its concept is simultaneously the most troubling).
‘Exploring Britain’s dominance of international sea trade across the centuries, this addictive fragrance recalls the words of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Emotional excitement reaches men through tea, tobacco, opium, whiskey, and religion’, says the blurb, and the scent does most definitely pack the punch.
To my knowledge, my nautical grandfather was not a religious man in any knowable sense, nor was he particularly alcoholic (one or two drinks seemed to suffice him for an entire evening, unlike his grandchildren), but he definitely did like his tea – full English leaf, from Waitrose……I used to adore how their particular homebrew tasted; and he also did most definitely like his tobacco ( I am presuming that he wasn’t smoking opium when the HMS Unicorn stopped off in Shanghai). In fact my brother and I have something of a transfixation on his tobacco tins and recall them quite vividly- Old Virginia, if I remember correctly, a scent that subtly pervaded the house, but that was also, when you opened up the metal tin when grandad was in the garden or something and was not looking, moist, delicious, and compelling. The leaves of this tobacco had a sweet, curled up, pungency that we loved, and that we really associated with grandad Chapman and his presence, and which I remember having a real surge of almost unbearably poignant memory from when I first sampled L’Artisan’s Tea For Two the first time: my god, this WAS grandad’s tobacco tin: I could see my nan and granddad’s living room quite clearly, see my nan and her fancy fruit filled jellies and her Garibaldi biscuits, and I still love that fragrance for that very reason (I have a bottle of it tucked away safely upstairs in my collection as kind of scented keepsake). I would never wear a tobacco scent myself I don’t think (the nearest I ever got was The Body Shop’s Tobacco Flower – lovely, a shame they don’t bring that one back; and Herrera For Men, which had something sweet and tobacco like in its top notes, and which I wore for a while when I was at university), but the D smells fantastic in tobacco scents and wears them quite regularly. He wasn’t entirely keen on this one though I must say. Although I quite like how the edges of the scent lingered in the room, with the turgid and fixed austerity of the ‘private gentleman’s club’, despite the sandalwood-based, spicy warm sweetness, it is all, if I am honest, ladled on a bit too thick; there are too many cooks spoiling the broth here, or the pudding, or whichever British characteristic is being served up here by the big, loving, spoonful. East India, a name that some people will surely find a tad distasteful, is strong; rich; domineering, much like the Great British Empire it is trying so desperately to be emblematic of. And in that respect, this perfume, like the others in the line, is, I have to say – and in many ways quite uncynically – quite genuinely a success. They have heft. They have quality. They have atmosphere. Britannia rules the waves. Boedicia is applauding and whooping in the backdrop (and so is Margaret Thatcher, quite probably); her subjects bow down emphatically, the waves of the oceans are parted, and once again, for just an instant, we remember that She was once the very centre of the known universe, the biggest empire, to this day, that the world has ever known. This is, indeed, as the company says, ‘tempestuous British perfumery’. And my grandad, with his temper, and his fiery opinions once he came out of his quotidian post-naval shell and voiced them (I can still hear him ranting with fury when the Sex Pistols came on for the first time on Top Of The Pops, raving as though it was the end of civilization itself), would most definitely have approved.