Monthly Archives: September 2016



The Black Narcissus



The first words that came to my mind upon smelling this, L’Orpheline, -The Orphan – Serge Lutens’ latest addition to his ever-expanding portfolio of perfumes, were…. ‘meanspirited.’

Spiteful, grey; flinty, miserable, a scent that if you were to wear on a dark and rainy day, skulking through jet-black puddles under your November umbrella, might just tip you right over the edge in its haunting, face-reflecting bleakness……………..this perfume, to me, really is bad mood in a bottle.

The second word that came to my mind, I’m afraid, was ‘unoriginal’. The sheer number of peppered, dour incense perfumes that have been released recently in the world of niche perfumery is quite startling, as if the fiscal austerity that has gripped a few parts of Europe over these last few years of economic and societal difficulty had been translated, in grim and unrelenting unsmilingness, into our perfume. For those that…

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I love Thursdays. I can secretly go off at lunchtime (see ‘The Evil Machinations Of The Black Narcissus‘ for a more breathless and heady account of these adventures), and hunt for perfumes.



One I found recently, for about six quid, and that I had never heard of before, was a scent by Lush (not Gorilla Perfumes, this time) mysteriously  entitled  Calacas. Previously called Day Of The Dead, in its former incarnation, this is a strange and striking concoction that once experienced, casts a strange, hypnotic – if kind of simplistically direct and harsh – spell. You know as soon as you smell the thing that you will never quite be able to ever get its sharp, sweet, taut insinuations out of your nose, or for that matter, your brain. 





Designed to smell like a Mexican festival, the key notes –  natural and pungent smelling, in the young, fresh, and sense-exciting top chords- are bright and sassed up oranges and limes doused, in a painted wall of sweet neroli. The perfume immediately  flowers; swells and fills up the whole room, like music from the mariachi





(interesting aside: when we went to Mexico, a decade or so ago, although I didn’t entirely take to the place for some reason – maybe its peculiarly dark energy, when I was expecting just the opposite – there was also the unfortunate but also rather hilarious fact that every time a mariachi band approached our table and started singing, in those rich, baritone timbres of sincerity and plangent romantica, I would find myself bursting into tears. I am not a person who cries, almost never, in fact, but I was a blubbering mess in Taxco and Guadalajara and Mexico City each time it happened and it was driving Duncan insane. “Just stop bloody crying will you, it’s embarrassing. What’s wrong with you? Go to the bathroom and dry your eyes for god’s sake ”


I don’t know. It just touched me in a way I couldn’t quite explain…).







But this. Superficially similar to other lime/orange blends such as Diptyque’s more benign little Oyedo –  if that is what is was called, I can’t be bothered to check at this very minute   – (and which I semi-like and have considered buying in the past, as I do have a real thing about all orange perfumes even though it always smells, to me,  like hardboiled sweets), Calacas nevertheless has a much darker, more ominous pall. Beneath all the sun-stripped citruses there lies a cool, almost scarily cold accord of frankincense olibanum, fused with a very persistent nitrile musk that remains forever as it worms its way into your subconscious. .





Duncan really took to it immediately. He adores lime. And this smells great on him. Really curious; like nothing I have ever smelled before. But somehow I feel that when this is the scent of the day – and I am now reluctant to allow it – I find that I am simultaneously in its thrall, perpetually intrigued, but also irked. Its personality is just so intense and unforgiving (and yet totally original and effortlessly compelling at the same time, the exact notes absolutely hit right by the perfumer – whoever created this is really clever), the perfume eating up the day, and the air all around it.


















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Japanese suburbs like their houses and front yards largely trimmed, and neat, but we don’t and want it green and overgrown, so have asked our landlords to not cut our garden. The result: the biggest osmanthus tree outside this window where I am writing, stretching right up to the telephone wires – and it has just bloomed.




Right now the scent is like the colour: an ethereal apricot cream. Soon though,  as I have written before in my paen to osmanthus and its inimitable glories, the perfume will become thick; and rotten peachy, and unwanted.














Right now though it smells beautiful: fresh, delightful and new,  a light haze of florally cottoning apricots. It doth beguile. Interestingly, today, I will also be able to smell again the osmanthus absolute, in its natural state, when I go, once again, up to the ear clinic in Tokyo, a four hour round trip (the reason I have been absent from this blog: a horrendous, and debilitating, ear infection which I have still not recovered from), where I will be able to then, once I have been violated once again with sharp metallic instruments and received the next dose of antibiotics, go to the Seikatsunoki, or Tree Of Life aromatherapy store, just down the road in Omotesando, which has the biggest selection of essential oils you can possibly imagine, from everything you have read about in your guide to aromatherapy, all the lavenders and citruses, patchoulis, oranges and hyssops, to Japan-only available extractions such as hiba, shiso and hakka Japanese mint (among many, many, others), and then to the most exciting: a selection of very expensive, but also very tantalising, floral absolutes,CO2 extractions, and ottos. The jasmine sambac, by far my favourite, I have bought on more than one occasion to make perfume – it smells gorgeous, just as it is, actually –  but then the other, distillated, absoluted essences can almost, even to the perfume-familiar, come on like strangely disguised impostors but nevertheless still quite fascinate. Tuberose is stern, and forbiddingly unsweet. Iris has no powder: it is peculiar, green, unadorned. Violet leaf is harsh, and almost unconscionably bitter. Frangipani is….I don’t know. It continues to elude me. Carnation is densely spiced and fruit-carnal, and darkly enigmatic.





But osmanthus? It stinks. Like animals in the barnyard. Shocking, when you know how sweetly innocent the flowers’ perfume begins. True, there is a hint of that apricot breeze I am getting right now from my front garden window which I am breathing in deeply like an early autumnal dose of happiness. Yet that floral fantasma, just distinguishable in the gunk, is drowned out almost completely in a foetid musk-funk of hooves, soiled farmyard hay, and beasts’ furred, slovenly behinds………………..animalic, thick; almost rotten, and very overpowering.  Perfumers, when they use this ultra-expensive material, must surely use very, very, little. In infinitesimal doses, I would imagine. Because in the raw, and in concentration, osmanthus absolute really is kind of disgusting. Like the slow, reeking ooze that has been issuing forth from my left ear, a putrid, sweet-smelling custard, it just shows you what we all boil down to: ultimately, in the end.

















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The Black Narcissus

mode, architecture, beauté,


I had wondered if this day might one day happen. Whether I would, in my ever-thrilling voyage into perfume, discarded by the Japanese as worthless flotsam in the bargain bins of flea markets, ever come across one of perfumery’s truly coveted holy grails: Shiseido’s Nombre Noir. A perfume so rare it has become legendary among scent lovers, long discontinued (and all remaining stock apparently destroyed with bulldozers), there are very few bottles left available in the world, now, the ones that do exist usually going for mind-boggling prices (around a thousand dollars seems to be the standard). It is a perfume that has been enraptured over, exaggerated, mythologized to the point that its very name for many of us has an almost talismanic energy. A black, pulsing, Japanese jewel. An amulet.







As well as the usual flea markets and antique shops I frequent, I have recently…

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Shalimar eau de toilette; vintage Vetiver de  Guerlain in cologne, and natural vetiver oil.


Earthy; warm, sensuous, enveloping. My kind of scent for a Saturday night birthday out in Tokyo ( a rabbit themed, moon viewing ‘Moon Bunny’ shindig at the Lapin Usagi hidden away joint down Omotesando for Duncan’s birthday).


His own scent of the night: Brosseau’s saline sweet, dandyishly enigmatic Violette Menthe: a strange little perfume that leaves room for illusion.



God knows what this taxi driver must make of these rich, luxurious fumes though






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Sometimes a perfumer reaches an alchemical perfection, in which all the elements within not only balance and harmonize each other but reach for something further: that intangible, effortless loveliness that we ultimately want from a scent ( I am rarely in search of difficulty:  I want ease, and immediacy, and pleasure ).




‘Eau Aimable’, or ‘Botanical Cologne Of Love’, achieves these criteria with flying colours. An inexpensive creation, it nevertheless has a bridling, emotional simplicity in which a warm and endearing note of orange blossom and neroli is combined with oranges (petitgrain, bergamot, orange essence and mandarin); some wild rose (or eglantine), some sugared almond vanilla, and – the stroke of inspired genius –  a bitter dash of capucine (tropaeolum magus), a form of nasturtium flower – pictured above – that cuts through the feathery softness of the blend like a Campari drunk at sunset.




There may be oranger scents available on the market, but this is the orangest.                  Soft, smile-inducing, and somewhat reminiscent of the quite similar By Kilian’s Love, Eau Aimable is nevertheless less rigidly confectioned than that delectable portion of vanilla meringue; more ephemeral, fleet of foot. The perfect pyjama-donned, bedside sleep scent, it is a lovely, gentle, cologne that just comes on; winks angelically; and, as you fall into dreams –  a mere halo of eiderdown now remaining on the skin –  has gone…










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The Black Narcissus


And so it goes. The beard is shaved off: unwillingly – I don’t recognize myself.

But that’s the rules.

The work clothes are washed; then rewashed (and hung outside in fresh air, for fear of contamination).

The body is soaped down; scrubbed. the hair, panthèned; conditioned.

Scent? A little. The rules say please do not.

But, just before leaving the house I find that I just do anyway; I can’t stop myself: a small spray, on each cuff, of Montale Sunset Flowers: that sheeny, bright lemon leaf, green apple violet wholesomeness I bought the other day on a strange anti-intuitive whim. For this precise purpose.

I iron my suit while staring out the window absently. Drinking coffee, willing myself into the spirit. A suit really shouldn’t be thrown into the washing machine in this way I realise but I am neurotic, aware of my smell at all times, and it…

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Me and Olivia out in London with some treasure…..


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One of the first things I noticed when I first arrived back in England, standing in my parents’ garden in the early morning light, my mother’s great love and a place just overflowing with flowers, trees, and plants – was that roses really smell like roses. 





While the place I am lucky enough to live in here in Japan, Kamakura, is certainly not devoid of smell stimulations – osmanthus, jasmine, wisteria in particular can be especially hypnotic when blossoming in spring and autumn; the plum blossom and narcissi at the end of winter piercing and heartrending; the gentle, pale pink drifts of sakura cherry flowers the very quintessence of Japanese beauty, at the same time, that most English of flowers – the rose, while grown here in many houses’ gardens here, is unscented.









I will often see a stunning looking rose on a stem here on my way home and lean down to smell it, but usually there is nothing, or merely a hint of a very faint, overcultivated rosiness, almost as if, just as with the cruel mastery of the bonsai, the roses have been deliberately bred to have no scent.  As with much in Japanese society, the visual and the conceptual always supercede the olfactory. It is the correctness of the rose that counts, not its fragrance.









Admittedly, when grown in profusion – in the sea-front rose gardens of Yamashita park in Yokohama, for example, when the breeze blows from the city or the sea across the heads of the flower tops, standing afar you may then catch a glimpse of true rose perfume and remember what the flowers do smell like, but this is still nothing like the wilder and thornier, raspberry-gleaned beauty of the ragged-edged sturdiness of the roses I encountered in my garden back home which were actually replete, and lush, with the full-bodied, emotionally irresistible scent of full blown roses in English summertime – a smell that almost seems, to me,  to contain the entirety of life itself, a secret just waiting to be unlocked.






































The majority of recent rose perfumes, in my view,  have been terrible. Either the perfectedly commercial, synthetic sweetnesses I intuitively reject for their ‘wedding day’ primness and banal and ugly sexual conservatism; the hystericality of all the metallic, purity-pinkness that I always abhor; or else over-egged wood and oudh puddings pillaged in slavery and patchouli. Unable to breathe, or bloom. Thick set. The rose essences struggling. Dead.





















Rose Parfum, by contrast, a very pleasing new release by Roja Dove, seems to have instinctively realized these concerns of the true rose fancier, flowering off in a totally different direction to the majority of contemporary roses, both veering in a saporously classical direction, while simultaneously revivifying the note into something fresh and new. I really like it. Unfolding, this perfume comes across like a slightly bitter green hybrid of Nahéma and Nº19; the peach-soft down rose of the former contraposed against the verdurous iris galbanum of the latter, a dew velvet poise that took me immediately by surprise ( I had forgotten that new perfumes can still actually smell beautiful ) and which drew me to immediately wear the perfume on my first few days back in England. It was perfect for long train rides and staring out of the windows on green fields and old memories.







While certainly not as magical as either of those ultra- classic perfumes (which I consider to have achieved perfection in the art of perfumery), Rose Parfum nevertheless also has a more distinctly English quality to it than its more languorous French counterparts. Though it may lack the typically suffusive Parisian powderiness and musk, it also has a certain crispness and briskness, a sense-lifting pleasure, a brightness, like rose buds themselves when they flower in the bud-green mote beams of dawn. And though the perfume’s dry down might not have been quite as well developed as the opening, veering into a slightly pot pourri sourness, on my skin at least, at the same time, neither did this truly ever irritate. I wore it comfortably, all through the day , and if you are a rose lover ( I had forgotten, almost, that I am), I most definitely would recommend it.

















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