[A guest post by Duncan…]
Although my scent tastes have obviously been molded from day one by Ginza and I now share many of his olfactory foibles and phobias (distaste for synthetic sandalwood…
Source: NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE
[A guest post by Duncan…]
Although my scent tastes have obviously been molded from day one by Ginza and I now share many of his olfactory foibles and phobias (distaste for synthetic sandalwood…
Source: NOTES FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Mona Di Oiro Ambre :
Cat in a Barn.
Cool light. 4am.
Blue sky. Wake up: almond breath / love.
Hypnotic charred piss.
As alien as the Japanese would have found the smell of westerners.
Juliette Has A Gun Miss Charming:
Self effacing to the point of non-existence.
Etat Libre D’Orange Fat Electrician:
Generous fuzzy crack.
Parfumerie Generale Cedre Samarcande:
Termites in maple syrup.
Profumi Di Firenze Tabacco;
tobacco + dogs + shaggy carpets + angel (= vomit)
Creed Love in Black :
Vivien Leigh. Black sable coat.
Tom Ford Velvet Gardenia:
A thousand gowns from 1955, chinchillas
Cartier So Pretty:
Bois 1920 Sutra Ylang:
Amouage Epic Man :
Lips could touch this from the first application
(but what if someone asks you what you are wearing?)
Tauer Incense Rose:
Love hate unrelenting fierce
Angela Flanders Cachou :
Rosey-eyed cherub, nibbling on marzipan.
Tresor in later life:fattened up.
Kicked off her heels.
Micallef Night Oud:
Julee Cruise, floating into the night….gorgeous.
Parfums d’Empire 3 Fleurs:
Enough to make your eyes pop out and sprout silk flowers.
Lalique Encre Noire Pour Elle:
As if feminism never happened.
Yves Saint Laurent Belle D’Opium:
The perfumes I consider to be my holy grails are quite hard for me to approach in writing. How to do them justice. How to capture their invisible power over me in the right words. I do not want to botch the job, nor drown out their subtleties with my standard, over-enthusiastic, effusions. There is enough hyperbole out there already in perfume; all that hype and purple ‘prose’, most of which becomes so laughable in the face of the actual perfume that it’s an almost constant case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Before I go any further, I should probably also say that this perfume is probably unique for me in that it is a composition I cannot describe in metaphor or with allusions the way that I might usually do, with the visual, the psychological, the literary or the musical (as I have done with Vol De Nuit, Calèche…
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In delving back into the past yesterday I found this morning that I wanted to pinpoint more precisely the exact moment when things started to fall more into place for me (I don’t want to give the impression that I am now ‘sorted’ and that everything is hunky dory and spectacular and I lived happily every after: I have no pension, virtually no savings, and have various health issues to boot – more on that anon), but at the same time I can’t deny that in the last few years I have begun to feel significantly more fulfilled and stimulated – and relaxed, funnily – than ever before. Who knows how long this positive period will last: I began the piece yesterday with the seemingly obvious truism that we all have ups and downs, have light periods and dark periods, and I know full well that they will happen again. While this ‘glory-days’, ‘second adolescence’ current epoch lasts though, I can tell you that I am certainly going to make the most of it. It has been a time of unbridled creativity and hilarity for me, sociability and self-fulfillment (making the horror comedy film last year, which will have its première quite soon in an old fifties cinema in the north of Tokyo, was one of the best experiences of my entire life, a truly memorable time that I will never in my lifetime forget. I loved every minute of it).
I think that the one thing I have learned, in recent times, is the utter beauty of having an idea or a concept and then just putting it into action. It sounds so simple, and so obvious, when in fact it is not. How often do we think of something we would like to do but then just dismiss it as stupid, or impossible?
I suppose this enactment of fantasies did begin earlier, with our first big themed dance parties in Yokohama, which drew wild enthusiastic, costumed crowds from both foreigners and Japanese people out for a good time, and whose planning and execution thrilled me to the core. I have never, in all honesty, entirely recovered from the ecstatic excitement I felt at school discos when I was twelve or thirteen: the music, the lights, the seeing friends in a different context, the submersion of it, it was all like a dream to me and it is a feeling that I have wanted to repeat in my life intermittently ever since. Hence our events in various locations through the years here, including The Rite Of Spring, Voodoo, You’ve gotta say yes to another excess, The Taxidermist’s Half Pint (now that was a strange one), and Delicate Delinquents, among many, many others.
A more unusual example of putting ideas directly into action though was when a friend of mine, Denise, and I were watching Luc Besson’s Fifth Element one evening at her apartment, adored the Blue Alien singing Donizetti’s exquisite aria from Lucia Lammermoor, and decided that somehow we would perform it (sadly not in costume: I think the elderly citizens of Kamakura city hall, where we took part in this all day music recital, where the performers paid to be on stage rather than the audience -so you can imagine the general quality – would have been just too flabbergasted and horrified had Denise come on stage actually as the alien, but the fact was, we did perform it: I accompanied her on the piano and she did quite an amazing job considering that she had never had any opera lessons). For me this felt like some kind of advancement in my life, not merely being a passive retainer, but actually doing something.
Somehow I know that when I was just out of university, something like this just could not ever have happened. It just wouldn’t have. I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed by everything, like I had been spat out into the world with nothing to fall back on. I was hollow. I was defensive, reactive, volatile (still am, but more then) and could hardly deal with anything at all. Much as I am obsessed with cinema, one of the true love affairs of my life, the idea that I might actually MAKE a film myself would have been utterly inconceivable. Because how?
Yet this project, Girl Goned, simply came one night from an idea one night that Duncan had when we were watching the brilliant seventies cult film The Wicker Man (set in the northern islands of Scotland among a religious cult community) and he just suddenly started chuckling to himself as he then imagined a pastiche/ parody version of the story, but set in the drag queen cabaret venues of underground Tokyo.
The next thing I knew, he and filmmaker/ performance artist Yukiro, a beautiful Swede we have become very close to, and who often comes round to our house to watch movies, were writing the script, skyping each other laughing their heads off as they did so; actors, camera people, sound people were being assembled with no one charging for their services, just doing it for the sheer love of it, and before you could say Suspiria we were actually making it.
Just being there on the streets of Tokyo early on a Saturday morning with D and Yukiro shouting ACTION! as we freaks performed our stuff without any shooting permits was so exciting (Japan is wonderfully laissez faire and liberal, even permissive in many ways, which you might be surprised to hear considering all the formality I am often talking about……..that, though is the official work space: when you sink into the demi-monde of Tokyo, the pleasure districts such as Asagaya and Koenji, a downtown area of the city we adore (and which yields a lot of vintage perfume, I can tell you!!) you see an entirely different aspect of Japanese life, one in which people, who party as hard as they work, lose themselves in the red-lanterned, glowing, open but secretive streets, night time honeycombs of libation and laughter that you can sink into like a vampire. Hardly anyone batted a weary eyelid.)
Ten years or so ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. I was asking Duncan this morning about when we first got the internet, because it seems to me that all of these positives that I am discussing now, in particular my writing The Black Narcissus, which I love, stem from the fact of being online and connected to people; being able to ‘talk’ to people at the touch of a computer key, when for a while back then I was slowly drifting into an abyss of despair and isolation that was stunting my pleasure receptors and filling me with a vast black lake of self-loathing and emptiness.
The responses to yesterday’s post really amazed me. I had no idea that just writing about one’s personal experiences, even when to me there is nothing especially interesting about them, could generate such reactions. I do feel more inhibited today writing as a result, more self-conscious that I have to produce a ‘Part Two’, and I don’t really know where to start, especially when I don’t consider the source material – my life – to be particularly interesting in the first place.
And why did I suddenly start writing about all this yesterday in any case? Perhaps it is because there is something really looming in my brain, my impending hospitalization on March 21st for six long weeks in a miserable Japanese hospital followed by three months or so more at home for rehabilitation ( I have serious knee problems: I wrote about this three years ago or so, post Sexual Emergency (now that party was a blast) when I seemed to have nothing more serious than a torn meniscus in my left knee. I suppose I have been putting it off and off and trying not to deal with it all, but it now transpires that I have quite serious damage to both legs, zero cartilage in the front of both knees, torn meniscuses, internal bleeding – my left leg is also apparently ‘deformed’ (I have never been called that before!) and in truth, I am now in constant pain. Each step, bone on bone, like the Little Mermaid, is extremely painful, and it can be delayed no longer. I will be having double osteotomies, a nightmarish sounding operation in which my bones will be sawn and cut, my embattled legs rearranged and wedges of some kind inserted. I am too young for full knee replacements apparently (great story: my dad also had double knee replacements, the whole thing is hereditary, was in a wheelchair for a while unable to walk at all, yet a few months after his surgery he was in a dance contest at a hotel shinding in Havana, a fact that never fails to give me hope when I feel myself sliding into grim imaginings and self pity), but it is not going to be easy for me.
The hospital I was originally going to have the surgery at, much nearer my house in Ofuna, is bright, breezy, has great feng shui, and I know I would have been much happier being hospitalized there. However, a man cannot live on aesthetics alone – the surgeon there seemed inexperienced, had never done a double osteotomy before (he said he would ‘have a go’, but that didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and so the whole process was delayed further (agonizing referral letters and delays and obstacles that have driven me to the point of distraction), I am now addicted to painkillers as the condition further deteriorates (right now it is really bad, actually – I can hardly walk, and don’t know how I am going to last until March 21st), but in any case, the surgeon who will be doing my operation is apparently the best in all of Japan and internationally renowned, and so I do feel comparatively safe in his hands.
It’s just that I have turned out to be more of a coward than I thought I was. I am not abnormally afraid of pain (but I am not a masochist either), and I do admit that I lie in bed at night these days really quite afraid of what is going to happen. I am a neurotic individual: I am panicking about everything from not being able to sleep at night (because I won’t be able to : I can only sleep in dark, silent places, not in the chest rattling wheezing of dying, Japanese geriatrics); I am hysterical about what is going to happen in terms of the toilet and smell (already planning my perfuming in GREAT detail: the main scent will be N0 19, which I will be emitting from my person during the operation, but I will also be taking Roger & Gallet’s Gingembre (thanks, Nina), which is a great, generic, trustworthy citrus cologne that you can spray on when you stink (how the hell am I going to wash? I HATE the smell of dirty hair, oh jesus, if any of you have any advice on any of this I would really appreciate it); the thought of shitting in the bed is just…….too unbearable, far worse than the genuine anguish I feel at the idea of waking up alone in a Japanese hospital in agony and unable to move……..just sitting here writing this I can hardly breathe. I wake up at three in the morning in a panic at the thought of being totally immobile and vulnerable, dragging myself across the hospital floor like a pitiful, human slug.
I panic about water, as I have a serious dehydrophobia fixation, worsened after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, when I stood at the wall of the gym I was in, clutching my bottle of cold green tea, thanking god, or whoever, that at least if I was about to be cast down into the rubble (which felt like an authenthic possibility), I would at least be able to stave off death from thirst for a while, which is my absolutely biggest fear in this life, alongside the cold, which I am also quite deeply concerned about. Being naked, like a blue slab of meat as they cut me up in those freezing temperatures…..I worry about not only waking up pulsating in pain but also on the verge of catching pneumonia again. Cold is my mortal enemy…..I can deal with extremes of heat (just call me Burning Bush), I am a fire sign, and worship the sun. But cold, for me, I equate with death. I can’t even imagine how I am going to feel when I wake up after this ordeal and they touch the rehydration gel to my desiccated lips and I throb in excruciation and anaesthetic nausea.
If I wake up, that is, and therein lies the crux. I know this is a ridiculously melodramatic statement to make (moi?), and I know that death on the operating table is very unlikely given that the surgery I am going to have is not supposedly life threatening; aside slightly high blood pressure I am basically healthy, my blood tests usually all come up fine; I am a bit overweight but not obese, I am sound of mind (maybe) and will be in the very best of hands (god I hate that idea, though, of being so helpless; of being manhandled like that against my will, well not against my will, exactly, because I have finally realized that I cannot put off this operation any longer now; he has told me that, and I know it instinctively at this moment: this is the time to do it, but still, that oblivion, that helplessness, the fact that anyone can do what they like with me (there have been some cases, I kid you not, recently, in Yokohama hospitals where some mad killer nurses have murdered their patients by poisoning their drips : no, this is not a story line from Duncan’s crazed Girl Goned but actual fact, but anyway); of course I am not actually expecting to be executed a la Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill, with some sexy nurse with an eyepatch whistling down the ward in killer heels and a lethal injection, but you know what I mean……I know that what I am describing here is commonplace, but I do think it is going to be like a nightmare. The food (yuk! You probably all think I love Japanese food, well yes, I love the food you can get here, but not all of washoku itself, slimy fish heads and seaweed and fermented business served at room temperature……..someone save me, but don’t worry, I have a week after finishing this term before I go into hospital and oh yes mama you had best be assured that there will be a giant, pre-planned rucksack full of essential oils, my essential perfumes, reading matter, and tasty treats like nuts and chocolate treats. Don’t be surprised if I secretly order in a pizza or two as well, though I am sure that that would really get me into trouble.
In any case, ENOUGH. Just thinking about it all is making me shudder, and I wasn’t even going to mention any of this. I am just trying to get to the bottom of why I found it necessary yesterday to start relaying back my life to you in such a way that the majority of people would find it difficult to do (something, in truth, I can’t relate to). Maybe it is that slight fear of not waking up on the operating table (it does happen, I read about someone my age dying in the middle of a standard knee procedure STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT, sorry), but I think it must be this that has made me write all of this up, you know, just in case.
As for the comments put up after yesterday’s post (oh the gorgeous freedom of sitting here in our house in Kamakura right now, sunlight on the balcony, the sound of children playing outside, Duncan in the other room doing final edits on the film (they are trying REALLY hard so that I can be at the première, if possible on March 19th, which is cutting it fine, but I am one of the essential characters (a ‘mute low-life’, according to the script), so yes, Duncan doesn’t let me utter a single word in the film, but you had best believe that I am by FAR the most terrifying entity in that film: in fact, seeing Burning Bush in the finished product kind of scared me: is that really me? I don’t think that you will like it. My epitaph.
Who knows? But as I said, reading the comments yesterday it seemed as if many of you are surprised that I am able to just……express my own ‘story’ on here, that I can just be so ‘honest’ about my own life. Though I was delighted with what you were saying, in a sense, as you seemed to be reading what I wrote with some kind of pleasure, at the same time it makes me wonder if I am not in fact some kind of freak. Is it really that unusual to just relate what is there inside your mind ? Is it emotional pornography? Are we really supposed to just keep things inside ourselves and live out our lives like closed vessels marinading in secrets? How hideous. Of course there are things that are mine alone, that I wouldn’t share with anybody (are there, I wonder?!), and it is true that in the past when I have put up posts that are confessional/personal/ revelational I have felt splayed open and raw and wondering why I had done it in the first place, and even pondered whether I should immediately delete them. I think though, that although my day job is teaching, which I enjoy to a certain point as I love people, and kids (particularly teenagers, who I can relate to because mentally I still am one) and get a lot out of it, at heart, I am probably some kind of artist. It has taken me a long time to realize this, but I literally cannot live without some form of self-expression that touches other people in some way, particularly if it can be beautiful in the process. And that, essentially, is surely what art is. I think it was sublimating this, or not realizing it for so long, that caused me such emotional pain in the past, as though I was trapped or unrealized in some way that I myself was possibly also unaware of.
I can’t believe that I am now going to delve back into my childhood once again but I do think that, as with almost everybody, that precious time in our lives holds the key to everything that we are today; in my own case my need for honesty, and my absolute refusal now and forever more to be anything other than myself (god this all feels so self-indulgent now, and because of all the comments yesterday I am hyper-consciously aware that I do have an audience: yesterday I felt as though I were just writing it all down for myself: now I can feel you, but you brought this on to yourselves, you egged me on, you want me to stand naked here before you so here I go….
If you look at photographs of my brother and I, you can see that he was essentially born melancholic. I like to think that he wouldn’t mind me saying this about him, because it is true. He is a pure and poetic individual who feels everything so keenly; at least as sensitive as I am, but in that heterosexual (sorry to stereotype), Nick Drake, tortured artist way (even though he has a hilarious sense of humour). A brilliant musician – though he himself doesn’t seem to realize it (I was always the lauded pianist in my childhood but he taught himself guitar and other instruments, writes music himself, and is fact incomparably more talented in that regard) he nevertheless, while still loving what he loves, as you can see from those pictures, one of which I put up the other day in my Bohea Boheme review, sees life through a constant mortality-aware, sorrowful, lens.
I, though tortured in that classic Proustian mother’s kiss kind of way, trembling over shadows in my bedroom at night (and I do think that there is nothing more petrifying than childhood: sometimes I was quite passionately nervous and could hardly cope with anything) was essentially more the vibrant, joyous creature, receptive to everything, alive to all my senses, a ‘fairy’ if you like (I played Peter Pan in the school play), and I do see these early years of mine as something inimitably beautiful and happy: playing in the garden, reading books from the library among the rosemary and the pinks, days and days spent playing in the forest with my brother and our friends, delighted to play the piano and have a natural talent for it (up to a point : I was never going to be a concert pianist: I never had the technique nor the will power, just the natural sensitivity); good at school and enjoying it, immersed in my imagination ( I would imagine that I was a warlock, or a black panther), popular but never in any clique – I never have been and cannot be – skipping about, basically as gay as the hills.
And that was the problem. I think with universal human joys and pains we sometimes diminish them because of their very universality, be they the experience childbirth, death, falling in or out of love: all the wrenching human experiences that sear through us and mould us become almost like clichés, standards; everybody or at least half of humanity goes through them, so no matter how painful or joyous they might be, they become like experiential common places. And yet, if you are love sick and heartbroken, it doesn’t matter how many others have gone through it, because in your own world, which is ultimately the only one you will ever know, it really does feel like the end of the world: you might even want to die. The same with bereavement: I have never really been through it, but I know of course that it will one day be coming and I can’t imagine how terrible it is going to feel.
At least a twentieth of this planet, probably much more, more like a tenth or even more than that, also had to go through what I went through as a young child – the petrifying, and I mean petrifying, gradually dawning knowledge that I was a pervert, an invert, a ‘homosexual’, and though there is nothing remotely new or original about any of this, I can’t even put into words how much damage that secret did to my soul in those early years (from about the age of eight) even as I was genuinely happy and loving my childhood simultaneously. I have written about this before, and so feel you must be think yes blah blah blah your coming out story, but you see just the fact of having to ‘come out’ truly makes me white hot with fury because it is so fucking unnecessary in the first place. All this fucking rigmarole (and yes, the swearing is absolutely essential so you can just fuck off to a more conservative and ‘pleasant’ website if you don’t like it), of having to pluck up the ‘courage’ (which is so hard, dear god, that fear of rejection, or in my case possibly even being beaten up or being thrown out or killed as I come from the officially most homophobic town in the entire United Kingdom, Solihull); that downright terror, which lurks within your soul for a decade even as you are the teacher’s pet or the most popular boy in the class with lots of ‘girlfriends’ and you know deep down that if anyone knew the real you, the real you, they would hate you.
Anyway. Suffice it to say, that with the kind of personality I have, despite all of the possible outcomes, I just couldn’t take it any more at the age of eighteen, and even if I was killed, then so fucking be it. I had to emerge from this chrysalid of shame and be myself. Because what is wrong with that?
Aided immensely by Merchant & Ivory’s beautiful and affecting ‘Maurice’ from 1987, the homosexual version of A Room With A View if you like but which literally saved my life and was probably the reason I was so desperate to go to Cambridge – one of the most beautiful places in the world, I still think; so beautiful – it was just like a dream to go there; my heart would just soar at its beauty on a daily basis as I lost myself in literature (oh dear I am actually starting to cry now writing this: I wonder what particular part has set it off?)I don’t feel overtly sad though, more just emotional: lord this is way more, insanely open and honest than even yesterday, isn’t it? I can imagine you just closing your computer lid embarrassed for me here as if I have gone too far or something but fuck it: if I do have a lasting legacy of any meaningful kind it will be in refusing to compromise myself and telling the truth. And the truth is that although I am happier than I have ever been in my lifetime right now – the university department I moved to within my company six years ago was an absolute life changer, the teachers way more interesting, the lessons more enjoyable, no more teaching games to eleven year olds out in the sticks (my tears have dried now, don’t worry), I am really quite enjoying the teaching, I love the writing I do and the friends that I have and the family I have back home, but despite this, I think that I do, still, have an absolute rage against society, any society, that will never be quenched. Like Madonna, the death of whose mother set her off on some kind of endless search for validation, and whose rape on a brownstone balcony in New York and its robbing her of her autonomy set her off on a life time quest to be in control and to be never be told by anyone else ever again what to do (which is why she is such an absolute inspiration for me: no one fires me up the way Ciccone does), I, if on a far smaller scale, feel that is my life’s mission to not let anyone stop me from being who I am, and if possible, to impart that sense of self worth to my students.
It is harder than it perhaps seems, though. It is not just a question of society’s acceptance, but possibly much more. I am not a religious person per se, but I grew up in a basically Christian influenced environment, and the fear that I might go to hell for admitting my desires (so natural, so real to me that it seemed insane that I could be considered a pervert when I had never been perverted by anything : I had felt this way essentially from birth) was a torment that caused me great pain indeed. Thus, in my second year at university (this is the only thing that I have written or am about to write that I am actually embarrassed about), I found myself under the influence of an evangelical Christian who lived in the room next to me in the boarding house I was staying in, some maths students in lycra pants who would constantly be out riding his bicycle (to stave off sexual desire?), but whose manic ‘inner light’ had a certain strange sway over me, and I would be there at night, before a picture of the Virgin, actually trying to pray in the dark for salvation from what I had become…….
Jesus, moving on…..What can I say? How did I get through all of this? Well, through having a relationship with someone for a start, and then through sheer philosophical, intellectual will power and deep thought, and just the fact that I am not an idiot and can see through things, I eventually managed to see the light, coming to the conclusion that if god exists, then god made me (because I am very conscious of not really having changed very much since I was born: of course things have happened, and I have evolved, as we all do, but like a seed becoming a stripling become a tree, I feel that I have been on one continuing trajectory that started from birth and hasn’t been contaminated by ‘immorality’ or perversion (so seriously, fuck Mike Pence and his desire to start conversion therapy for homosexual people: nothing could be more damaging or wrong when it often takes people so damn long to where they are in the first place. A life style choice? Say that to my face and I will punch your fucking lights out.)
But to perfume. Always, I had loved it, from a young boy and the flowers in the garden to the fragrances in my parents’ bedroom, both of whom wore scent on a daily basis and which I would linger and pore over and smell and even wear, until as a teenager around the age of sixteen I started to buy them and wear them myself. What was it about them? Why was I so drawn to them? I think just the sheer, mysterious, unadulterated pleasure of it, the surrounding yourself in something invisible and beautiful yet palpable and real, that four-dimensionalizing aspect of leaving a scent trail behind and of immortalizing memories.
I have been wearing scent on a daily, obsessive basis ever since, times I have great memories of as part of my emancipation, like talismans or an exteriorization of the spirit (because that is what perfume really is, when you think about it: it is making the hidden you open; it is touching a person in a way that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, entering their body and mind but not as an invasion (unless you are wearing La Vie Est Belle), more as an incitement, or an abstract flirtation that adds to and embellishes your personality.
Through all of the important eras of my life, from junior high school (Armani Pour Homme, Givenchy Xeryus); sixth form college (Chanel Pour Monsieur, Kouros, Givenchy Gentleman) university (Obsession) and my year in Rome (Christian Dior Fahrenheit), through my early years in Japan when I realized that gendered perfuming was bullshit and I embraced all that smelled good to me (Kenzo L’Elephant, Shalimar, No 19, Vol De Nuit), I have worn scent as an armour and as my clothing (I don’t apologize for my relative lack of interest in fashion; for me what I wear refers to my smell, as it means so much more to me). To say that I am and always have been deeply interested in smell would be a grave understatement.
It had never really occurred to me that you could write about perfume, though. I don’t mean shit magazine PR copy like Marie Claire and the like, which as perfume writing is as appealing as an IKEA catalogue. I mean intelligent, descriptive, writing on scent that through words could actually evoke the perfume in question, something that for some reason when I first came across it in John Oakes’ The Book Of Perfumes, which I got at the end of the nineties and devoured repeatedly til it fell apart (flowerly, old school writing, torrid and dramatic but still compelling).
And then I discovered Luca Turin. Helen happened to send me a copy of the original French edition of his original Le Guide, and mon dieu: what can I say, the man changed my life.
At this point, let’s say around 2004 or so, I was still in the old department of my company, travelling all over the place in Kanagawa prefecture to teach rooms of twelve year olds I had no interest in teaching, essentially lost, with no idea what to do in the future, my days filled with something like a heart of darkness which I tried to contain and just get on with my life (because what else can you do); but the arrival of this writing, on perfume, quite honestly truly did blow my mind and revamp my entire neural wiring. Although I couldn’t understand every word of Turin’s wry, sophisticated and often extremely beautiful French, I decided to undertake the translation of as much as I could, for my and other people’s enjoyment, and found that his exquisitely romantic reviews of perfumes such as Chanel’s Bois Des Isles or Cuir De Russie were just so evocative and beautiful that I would just read them over and over again while at work like clandestine love letters.
During this time, as I was discussing with Duncan this morning, we had a dial up internet connection on a crappy computer by some company or other, and it was before Facebook (which I think is one of the most monumental events in human history, but I’ll come to that later) so I wasn’t connected to any communities like I am now and was far far far more isolated and lonely than I had ever been (Duncan works in a high school and gets up at 5:40 every morning and gets home in the evening at a normal time such as 6 or 7: I work in a night time prep school so get there at 2 or 3 and get home at 11pm or even later, so we hardly even see each other from Tuesday to Friday, which now is no problem: I adore my solitude and free time to write or read the New York Times (my love), delivered every day and which I read cover to cover over copious mugs of coffee, but then, it was an entirely different story altogether.
Once I discovered the perfume blogs, though, like Alyssa Harad in ‘Coming To My Senses’, it was, for mw, like a portal to another universe, one that I felt intrinsically drawn to and exhilarated by. Bois De Jasmin, Perfume Smellin’ Things, Perfume Posse, Now Smell This, all the original perfume blogs I just couldn’t get enough of. I would read the reviews I liked over and over again until the words were stuck in my brain. At this stage, it had never really occurred to me that I could do the same myself: in life we sometimes assume that we are incapable of something when actually if we just make a slight effort we can (no, not chemistry and kanji: I stand uncorrected on those two impossibilities in my life).
Having nothing else to do though, having so much time to myself and with virtually nothing there to fill it, one day at work, I just picked up a piece of paper, and although my pen hovered over the surface for quite a while before I actually wrote anything, a few minutes later when I looked back at it I had written my first review – of Mitsouko. Why I chose that one I’m not really sure – perhaps it was the moss, and the being in Japan, but I did feel that something almost monumental had happened.
If you can bear it, to be continued……
We all have good and bad periods in our lives, times when we feel things are right and we can believe in the present and the future, and others when we feel lost. Much of the beginning of the twenty first century was like that for me.
Coming to Japan in 1996 for no other reason than pure escape, even though I had, in fact, virtually zero interest in the country (it was truly a do or die situation for me at that time, it could have been Timbuktu), I went through a period of deep isolation and desolation before beginning to slowly bloom again when Duncan joined me here (we had briefly split up for a time beforehand, at my instigation, in my post-university London desperation).
Japan – alien, bizarre, yet simultaneously unsurprising – took quite a while for me to settle into, but as its pleasures began to take hold, we made friends, and were soon in a drunken gaijin (foreigner) late-twenties bubble, working at low-reputation language schools and watching Japan from the outside while working and partying within it. This was great for a while, even if, as ‘Cambridge Graduates’ – an albatross of expectation that ultimately just makes a young person feel guilty and horrifically underachieving unless they have scaled the career heights and ‘made their mark on the world’, deep down, we both felt unanchored, vaguely embarrassed, and consistently anxious about the future.
I think that unless you have a solid ambition from a young age – to be a doctor, a journalist, a fashion designer, an entrepreneur- and are a liberal arts graduate – in my case so pragmatically specializing in twentieth centry Italian and French literature, with a special focus on existentialism (meaning that I could see through everything and could not believe in the value of anything whatsoever) – upon graduation from those ivory towers you can be really plunged into what is, essentally, a terrifying and all encompassing black hole.
For me it was like drowning. There was literally not a single job in the world that I actually wanted to do. Nothing appealed to me. Of course I realise that this is one of those ‘first world problems’, ‘white privilege’ and all the rest, when half the world doesn’t even have food to eat, but I was me, in my own situation, and my own milieu, and being aware of all that didn’t detract from the sheer angst my lack of direction engendered in me. I could see no future ahead of me. And that can be devastating for a young person.
I have never had any interest whatsoever in business, in just working for companies that make money for executives and stock holders – and the existence of Donald Trump and everything he stands for just vindicates my instincts in this regard – these soulless, evil fucks. And so all the twenty three year old students rushing to get jobs as investment bankers during the so called ‘milk -round’ in the last year of Cambridge, when you are sucked up by the City Machine and all the Big Companies just left me bewildered and at a loss. I was never going to even try doing anything like that. I would literally rather have died. But what else was there? As a language graduate, you could say that the world of the EU (weep, I am still fuming), and diplomacy, or translation, and interpreting, beckoned, but that was about as likely as me transforming one fine morning into a llama. Fakeness, excruciating politeness, the exchange of small talk and schmoozing among well dressed reptiles with underlying motives and blank-faced foreign counterparts and all that diplomatic goo is as alien to me as tilling the bank vaults and advising clients on their portfolios would be; and even translating, which sounded vaguely impressive in a way, seemed to me to be simply transforming another person’s words like a machine. I am too egotistical and selfish for that. I like my own words.
And so what else was there? The media held no appeal. Mainly because anyone I met from the TV, film, art or music sphere just seemed like such pretentious, insecure assholes that I couldn’t bear to spend even a minute with them. I had so many miserable evenings in London I can’t tell you. Publishing, another option, just seemed the same. I considered counselling and psychology for a while but then realized that realistically, I am just too porous and sensitive (I would have absorbed the clients woes too much, like a sponge). I even considered the idea, for a while, grasping at straws, of becoming an aromatherapist – at least closer to my passions. It was just that I didn’t want to ever touch anyone.
One exciting option seemed to be perfumery. There was a chink of light. Perhaps. And so with dreams of perhaps opening a shop one day and becoming world travellers sourcing ingredients, my best friend Helen and I enrolled in the Plymouth University Perfumery diploma course, a long-distance qualification that involved assessing aromatic materials (which I found I was quite good at), essays (the first one, on the essence of perfume itself got me good points), and then, as you might expect, just reams, and reams, and reams, of chemistry (100% impossible). The whole project, which we had been so frothing about the mouth about initially, was dead in the water before you could say opoponax.
It was just not to be. Although I infinitely prefer to associate with positive people – I have no time for negativity in my life any more, because what’s the point?– at the same time, although I deeply respect idealism and optimism in people – I have never had any truck with the ‘anything is possible’ idea personally, particularly when I know that for me, certain things are truly not. To me, rather than pessimism, it is just enlightened, intelligent, realism.
I know myself. I am not an especially modest person – I know what I am good at. But I also know my limitations and what I can’t do. This extended from studying physics at school – so utterly dull it was hard to even be in the classroom let alone concentrate on what was in front of me (one classic punishment, which I think I have related before, was when my teacher at the time, Mrs Lakhani, who I actually liked, and who liked me as well in a bemused kind of way, just said to her wilting, languorous fourteen year old yawning student, oh for god’s sake Neil, just go and water the flowers at the front of the school or something, will you? – cue an embarrassed school boy with a watering can, caught giving the geraniums at the front of that Orwellian building some water by the head teacher – ‘Chapman, what on earth are you doing?’….Mortified, yes, but at least I was close to the flowers, something I have always, since very early childhood, completely and utterly adored, and which could at least allow escape from that hellish, bunsen burner prison – from history, chemistry, mathematics….I had no interest in any of it.
But perfumery without chemistry is like being a fingerless pianist (yes I know you can use your toes, but I was never that resilient or determined: I am a lazy bastard at heart) and even though I knew it was impossible, I did try for a little while. Helen, fearing the chemistry, wisely saw the light earlier than me and gave up immediately. I, stupidly, vainly, tried to learn a few basics about the fundamental elements of our earth, and nature, with a very patient friend of mine living in Japan called Soraiya, who I taught basic French to in return after work in Yokohama cafes, but she quickly had to let me down gently (when I didn’t even know if the sun went round the earth or vice versa), that this probably wasn’t going to work.
It was the same with Japanese kanji. As a supposed linguist, you might think that by now, after two decades in the country, I would be a fluent speaker, someone who can compose haiku in Japanese or write a Tokyo-based novella in the language of my home country. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I can converse in the language fairly well up to a point (if I said to people I had been here four years, say, they might be mildly impressed, but for an expatriate of twenty years my level is shameful), I cannot write a single sentence. Literally. And I knew I never would…
DEFEATIST ! I hear you cry.
I don’t think so. I know my brain. And I respect it. I was born with what I was born with. In Japan the crushingly prevalent idea is that if you try hard enough, you can do anything. I don’t agree. I actually hate that ‘Impossible is nothing’ bullshit. While mind over matter, endeavour, and the power of sheer will have led to remarkable achievements the world over I am sure, if you have ever sat through a four hour mammoth piano recital, the way I have, with the pupils and protegees of my piano teacher all rattling off pieces – Bach, Chopin, Beethoven – of enviable technical proficiency but with no soul – dry, robotic – you will realise that it doesn’t matter how many hours of practice you put it, if you haven’t got it you haven’t got it. God……..it was like being raped with a hammer, actually, and D and I couldn’t take it any longer and just had to go out and get totally smashed, drunk out of our minds, to get back even a modicum of spiritual equilibrium.
And you can forget about Kanji, or the Chinese characters that form a great part of the Japanese language. That was NEVER going to happen. While I can read a katakana menu (wow how impressive), to this day, I am unable to distinguish the hiragana お (o) from あ (a). Even sitting here looking at these two symbols right now, which I have just copied and pasted, and which most foreigners here can memorize in one look, I am still literally unable to distinguish them. I think, thus, that I despite the obvious fact that I am not illiterate (like, say, the president of the United States), I am possibly a little bit dyslexic. The Roman alphabet – fine. I picked up Italian very quickly and was almost fluent within ten months of living there. Japanese takes me about twenty times longer to remember, and I think that this is partly because of the syntax and grammar, which still makes very little sense, but more the way it is written. If I can’t mentally imbibe even the a b c of the language, there is no way in hell that I was ever going to be able to read, let alone write, words like these with their ultra complex kanji, which just look to me like mangled, intricate insects :
躊躇（ちゅう・ちょ） – hesitation
朦朧（もう・ろう） – dim, hazy
憂鬱（ゆう・うつ） – depression
瀟洒（しょう・しゃ） – elegant; trim
You yourself might have different basic abilities and attributes to me, and thus think ah yes, but if you tried, if you really tried, you could probably do it. Er, No, I couldn’t. And I knew this the very first week I was here. I remember staring out at a building opposite from where I was teaching, with ‘words’ like these on the walls, and my brain just said nah, that is never going to happen: and that was that. I gave up upon arrival, but in a way I think that was sensible, because it saved me unnecessary heartache and hassle. I do occasionally think of how beautiful it would be to be able to read Japanese novels in the original, or enter the bizarre world of anime and manga in the same way the Japanese do, to read newspapers in Japanese, but at the same time, not wanting to enter too deeply into this culture is honestly a conscious decision. I retain the right to live like this, to be in Japan, but to not even vaguely attempt to be Japanese. Both D and I like, and insist on, keeping ye olde Nippon, which doesn’t really want us here, at a distance. We want to preserve the floating neon dream, not to understand every insidiously repressive intricacy of the real thing. We are dreamers, and it took us a while to truly accept that. I like not understanding advertising – something I have detested from the bottom of my heart for decades- it has always just instinctively felt like pollution to me, real brain toxin – and Japanese TV commercials are literally unbearable poison to me from every caricatured, racist, sexist, ageist stereotype imaginable, to the saccharine sheer stupidity of it all………..no, this is not anything I need to understand any more than I do already. Let me edit my experience my way.
Perfume and chemistry were the same. It was just not to be. The chemistry was fully impossible. And it always will be. I picked up Luca Turin’s The Secret Of Scent again the other day, thinking it would make good toilet reading, and I was really enjoying the first section about Nombre Noir and Chamade and all the rest of it and how this perfume love started him off on his path, but I had to give up by about page 10 when he started on all the chemistry (I imagine that some of you had exactly the same response).
Frankly darling, it bores me to death.
So there went the perfume dream, anyway, at least in the traditional lab-coated sense. By this time (why am I telling you all of this?) I had left NOVA, a chain of language schools that sank in an explosion of infamy a few years ago with English teachers left starving with no salaries as the whole thing went under, and had immersed myself in a fully Japanese company of preparatory schools where I am the only full time foreign teacher ( I say ‘full time’, when really it is only four days a week, fulfilling perhaps the only ambition I ever had, to have a three day weekend): a decision that on the professional level was definitely the right way to go – real teachers, pedagogically sound, even if the Japanese teachers themselves are treated like slaves – I could never do what they do in a million years – but emotionally, I can’t deny that it was incredibly difficult for me for a long while; making me experience deep and lasting culture shock four years after arriving in the country and having done nothing but play in the seductive, and immersive, gaijin bubble.
I could write an entire book about my experiences of teaching in this company along with all the other things I have lived in this country, and one day would like to, but being the kind of person I am, and being weighed down in what I found an incredibly oppressive environment, so impersonal and rule-bound I found it demoralizing up to the point of dehumanization, I have to say that the start of the millenium really wasn’t the best time of my life.
Why didn’t you just leave? I hear you ask. Yes, but I had no idea what else to do. I didn’t have an MA, the requirement to work at Japanese universities – which, in truth is said to be quite unfulfilling in any case as students in Japan basically use up all their energies in junior high school and high school in cramming endlessly for entrance exams, university being their moratorium, a four year playground where you are essentially guaranteed to graduate and can just party and chill, explore fashion (killed dead the second you leave and get a job when you become a salaryman drone), and live the four years of freedom that you will spend the rest of your life yearning back to, absolutely the definitive honeymoon period for most Japanese, and not a time that anyone takes studying seriously; teachers I know who have jobs like this say that half of the students present at any lecture are asleep at any given time, the rest on their smart phones, and I am such a control freak I know I would find this quite intolerable. I want my students to fully engage with me. But anyway, aside university positions, there were only school jobs with curricula I didn’t want to be bound by, or gabba gabba language schools where you talk to bored housewives and half-dead businessmen and hardly get paid anything, and in my job I have one hundred per cent creative freedom in what I teach and virtually zero interference. Perfect.
Except that I immediately felt so incredibly isolated and alone. Sitting there in that teacher’s room, paranoid and trapped inside my ‘Englishman’s’ head, I eventually started to slide into depression (went to counsellors too to explore some past and current traumas but was told that I was not clinically depressed, but was perhaps suffering from something called ‘depressed mood’). You don’t say. Then September 11th happened and things got way, way blacker and I could hardly see the wood from the trees. I knew things would never be the same again and I felt even worse, floundering. Lost. The culmination of all this was 2002, when my heart was black as tar, I felt deep inside myself that I was instrinscially unloveable, and after flying back to London, came down with a very serious case of pneumonia that saw me hospitalized for eight days, followed by a lengthy recuperation period at my parents’ house that was my own personal ground zero. This was a strange time for me, when I felt adrift and so very mortal, unfulfilled at the molecular level, anxious, and with very little, in truth, my relationship with Duncan aside, to cling to.
Perhaps this is universal, this cultural alienation having such a profound physical effect on the individual. In fact, upon returning to Japan after my convalescence, I remember coming across a novel, the fascinating Foreign Studies by Shusaku Endo, in which the protagonist had had almost precisely the experience I had, just in reverse. I know I have written about all of this somewhere (but I can’t remember where or when), so forgive me if all this repetition of my quite unremarkable life is dull, but this story, which I remember reading in a Starbucks in some Japanese hicksville town on the way to some school near the mountains where I had to teach roomfuls of eleven year olds I didn’t want to teach, blew my mind with its similarities to what I had experienced myself personally as I sat there still feeling frail from my potential brush with death and read of this neurasthenic ‘aesthete’ with literary and artistic pretensions, fulfilling the bohemian obligations of the day by going to live in Paris and ‘live the life’. Unable to shake off his innate Japaneseness and disappointed by the French realities, the monolithic heaviness of the stone buildings (I myself felt initially profoundly internally disturbed by the opposite flimsiness of Japanese architecture), the writer eventually finds himself so alienated by his adopted culture that he withdraws from society and succumbs to pneumonia just like me (the chest and breathing apparatus is definitely the most vulnerable area for sensitive people, no matter where they are from!)
In any case, I had survived, I was back in Japan, yes, but what was to become of me now? Was I simply going to malinger as an English teacher? Oh, the shame and failure. Yes, I enjoyed certain aspects of it, and it wasn’t as though we weren’t having fun or doing anything creative ( I had the odd piano recital, and we still had our themed parties twice a year or so), but at heart I felt dissatisfied. I know now that this was because I wasn’t expressing anything – not really, I wasn’t creating anything, not writing about perfume, not transcending anything – which I now know I do absolutely do need to do, and which, even just writing the Black Narcissus, has saved me in many ways. I live for beauty and pleasure, for the infinite, the beyond, the essence of what we are,and I can’t just passively consume the banal crap that constantly comes our way and be happy. I need more. I can’t and won’t be brainwashed by this crass, capitalistic, simplistic and moronic world because I know that what we are presented with as the ideal, is a lie.
LA VITA E BELLA.
Does any of this rambling chime with anyone? Have you ever come through a period of malcontent and emerged the wiser? When even the ‘friends’ you were associating with for extended periods of time weren’t even making you happy?
During the beginning of the 2000’s I was, in truth, quite often bored with our weekends, not stimulated by the company we were keeping during these years if I am honest – 2002, say, to 2008 (WHEN I WROTE MY FIRST PERFUME REVIEW! MITSOUKO, I BELIEVE), which totally started things in a whole new direction….
People had sometimes said to me over the years that I should write, and I thought that maybe I should, but I could never think of anything to say. A novel was out of the question, as I could never imagine anything from a perspective other than my own (such a self-absorbed creature!) As soon as I felt perfume flowing through my pen nib, though, it was an entirely different matter. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that it was akin to being reborn.
Around this time, though, we were living a fairly staid and quite ‘grown up’ (so overrated, as a concept!) way of life. A lot of our social occasions involved frankly dull English teachers, quite a lot of overly conventional gay couples and their female friends, where no one ever really said anything interesting and where the conversation was usually grounded in such dull reality (Jesus, conversations about gas bills, ‘property’, visas, the daily ins and outs of schools, the price of fish, I was bored out of my skull). I like eccentric people, individuals, alive, real, vital; those that might have been hurt but have put it behind them, people who revel in the beauty of life and the world and know instinctively not to talk about the realia of daily and all the tedious rubbish that can bog us down. Those who can see beyond all that. Beyond their bank accounts.
Now, at this time of my life, mid-forties (easily the best, despite some problems – but then who has none of those? – I think we would both quite honestly say that; both professionally fulfilling, but also artistically, socially often quite frankly thrilling), I can hardly imagine being so mired in, as I often was before, in what I superciliously, and quite snobbishly sometimes refer to as the ‘quotidian mould’….
You know, I think I should stop here. This piece was supposed to be about something different entirely – I don’t know where all this retrospection has come from. Perhaps I just needed to say it. I don’t know.
I came across some old notebooks the other day in a drawer – notes I had taken on perfumes while out and about in Paris, London, Berlin and other places (there are so many reviews I have never completed or put up on this blog), and I thought that, for a change, rather than full-fleshed perfume reviews it might be amusing to put some of them up for your casual perusal. Often just one liners or quips for later reviews that never happened, but which sometimes say all I have to say on the matter. Some of them amused me. Some of them were quite pleasingly succinct. And the more perfume reviews, I say, the better. I have written so much on perfume already on The Black Narcissus, some pieces pored over for days, the majority just splurged out and put up immediately, but I want to keep writing more.
I will continue this confessional later.