It has suddenly dawned on me that I only have a week left, not two, before returning back to work. That this is over. That a period of almost six months, a big, unprecedented chunk of time to get over the major knee surgery I had back in March (that feels, in ‘reality’ more like six weeks – it has passed so quickly I can hardly believe it), and which I thought would feel like an endless, half year sabbatical during which I would achieve all kinds of wonders – but failed to – is coming to a close as the summer ends, and autumn approaches, and the teaching begins, even though I am not remotely ready for it to do so.
I am not even, by any stretch, fully recovered. I had assumed that I would be walking pretty much normally; would be embarrassed by the fact that I was breezing into work all physically and mentally buff without the aid of any walking sticks, making it appear as though I have just been skiving off work without any reason, to the envy of my Japanese co-workers who have been slaving it through the summer and who cannot in a million years even imagine two weeks away from their jobs ( even when sick), let alone half a year, when the arrogant foreigner comes slinking back to his desk as though nothing had happened, with a sigh and a heavy heart nevertheless, because in his heart of hearts he wishes that the convalescence, and the freedom to do absolutely nothing, could have gobe on indefinitely, forever.
At least, then, I will still look like a vaguely pitiful, half-baked cripple. They will have visible evidence in front of them that I have, in fact, been through the wringer. Just from seeing the way that I walk. The pain from my swollen joints. The fact that my knees still ‘give’ on occasion and I stumble. The odd gait. My winces. For although I have undoubtedly made a great deal of progress since my ‘bilateral, closed wedge high tibial osteotomies’, eight hour surgery (for those readers not familiar with all of this) that required the breaking, cutting and rearranging of my legs so that I would have to learn to walk again from zero, or minus more like, because initially, they weren’t even really like legs, when I woke up, just bleeding, bruised, swollen and paralyzed appendages covered in ice packs that I felt no connection to and which I couldn’t move at all and which let me feeling helpless and inconsolable and full of regret that I had even gone through with it (it was only later that I realized in fact what a major undertaking this all has been : it is very rare for people to have both legs operated on at the same time, particularly with the more painful and complicated ‘closed wedge’ procedure that I had to sign up for – most hospitals only consent to perform the surgery on one leg at a time, at yearly intervals ( what was I thinking?!), and if I look back at myself in March, and April, and then see my situation now, able – at home at least – to move around by myself without sticks, I cannot argue with the fact that I have made a great deal of progress indeed, relatively speaking. Undeniable. I went from immobile and paralzyed, to wheel chair, to slow walking frame, to sticks, to being able now to walk around the house; a flamingo with no support at all.
At the same time, by the half year mark, a good percentage of osteotomy patients (according to the ‘internet’, and therein lies the danger), are playing tennis, walking normally, even jogging, supposedly, yet here I am with all this pain in my joints, deteriorated muscles in my thighs, calves and ankles that I am still trying to strengthen with weekly or bi-weekly physio sessions at a nearby hospital, definitely not the slimmed down, fit as a fiddle, legs like tree trunks September teacher that I thought I was going to be, one who would have spent this long, long hot summer fruitfully, maybe one who had even started writing that book, who had really achieved something, the Bionic Man. Instead, the time has just slipped by, like sand through my fingers.
Then again, when I have talked about this to the people I know – it has been a very sociable and friend-driven time, with hospital visits and stays at our house galore, lots of sitting about and talking and drinking and watching films on the projector, or meet ups in Tokyo, most people I have spoken to about this have said that I am actually being way too hard on myself , that the only thing I really have needed to be focusing on, in fact, for the entire duration, is my recovery, and that to even think about trying to ‘achieve’ other things, in my circumstances, is unrealistic, still languishing in my painkiller cocoon and the heaviest heat of July and August. My mother knew that this would be the case all along. That to even be able to walk ( but why isn’t it more painless? and smoother? and less fraught?) is a great achievement in itself. And I suppose it is. I see severely handicapped people walking on the streets, sometimes, twisted and contorted and with great determination in their eyes just to move forwards, and I feel a lot of gratitude that I am not personally in such a situation. It has, I suppose, been a success, and the entire purpose of the six months off from work recommended by my surgeon was simply to recover from what was essentially a very traumatic experience, the only foreigner in a Japanese hospital having my legs snapped and sliced up then stuck in an in the middle of nowhere Yokosuka rehabilitation ward for two months while the wounds healed, my slow and tentative physiotherapy began, and, where like a baby, I literally learned to put one foot hesitantly, and painfully, in front of the other.
I think the real guilt, if I am truly honest, comes in the lack of guilt I feel in the knowledge of how much I have actually rather enjoyed the whole experience. As readers, you will be the judge of how depressed, or not, I seemed in hospital, as I was expressing myself to you there quite frequently live to you raw and in the flesh, attempting to paint pictures of my time there in sensorial detail, the complexities, and the truth that there is beauty everywhere and anywhere, even in the bland confines of a private hospital room. My mad torrent of impressions that I posted on the last day of my stay, ‘Seventeen things I have realized in hospital’ surprised even me in its sheer length and passion: ironically, or perhaps predictably, I don’t know, the sheer stimulus of, or the reacting against, the institutionalization I was gradually succumbing to brought some muscle and some vigor to my writing that melted away once I flopped into the perfumed, sybaritic environs of our house, where I had no schedule any more to pitch my time against, and where I awoke to the bliss each morning that I had nothing whatsoever to do except get on with my exercises while watching films and documentaries ( heaven !) or playing records ( ditto) or reading the New York Times ( the same ) while drinking coffee ( nectar!); that it was summer, which I love far, far more than the other seasons combined, and most importantly, that I didn’t have to work.
I know when I go back next week (nooooooooo!!!!) that there will be plenty of abnormally workaholic Japanese colleagues who I work with who will be bewildered and uncomprehending if I admit to them shyly that I managed to ‘get through’ six months off from work without getting bored (not one second); that I was able to satisfyingly occupy my time ( absolutely); that I didn’t require outside interference and imposed structure in order to feel stimulated, useful, or worthwhile as a human being (why would I?) True, I do feel quite lazy. Incredibly, unbelievably, shamefully lazy, or indolent, or decadent, or just outrageously, insultingly self indulgent, but my job – though enjoyable, stimulating, and definitely good for me, in the long run, because it keeps me in society where I can do something good for people, for the youth; prevents me from becoming a total Queen of Sheba lying prostate and luxuriating in the moment and the sunbeams while sipping red wine from golden chalices ( we literally have some ) and dangling grapes into my far too active, orally fixated mouth as I smear myself unctuously with unguents and perfumes and sing along to the music – is just that : a job, work; something to bring home the bacon and keep me alive and not ending up on a park bench, essential: but ultimately, at the end of the day, though theoretically it pains me to admit this, I have no work ethic. Yes, I care very much about each lesson, how it goes, and how the students are actually doing, my reputation, the school’s success rate, so I try and do my best whenever I am teaching (there are few things more depressing than a bad lesson, trust me) and I really do need the money ( right now I have none – I am living off Duncan, like a parasite ), but as for working for the sake of working, like a rat on a wheel, I truly, at the end of the day, can’t be arsed. Given the choice, I would not. I have already been teaching for twenty five years, a quarter of a century. Is that not sufficient?
Work have been actually very good to me. Long gone are the Bubble days, when English teachers, ‘foreigners’ were treated like gods and paid like kings for just speaking their own language. I arrived after this time, but even then, conditions were good, and there were plenty of escapees like me just making a living, evading the realities of their home countries by immersing themselves in the incomprehensible exotic, hanging out with each other partying, just having another adolescence, really, because they couldn’t really think of anything better to do and were just living for the moment until they saw a light at the end of the tunnel or a different opportunity. Still, the economy changed, many fled after the earthquake, and attitudes towards them hardened. With the country far more inward looking and less internationally minded now in my opinion (yes, despite the coming Olympics, there is no doubt that the younger generation is more insular and Japanese in many ways); in spite of the need for the country to produce more competent English speakers- really, the general level of spoken English here is really quite embarrassing compared to surrounding Asian countries- the ‘eikaiwa’ teacher now often works in quite appalling work conditions and I am actually extremely lucky to have the position that I do. I certainly don’t take it for granted. When the company that both Duncan and I originally worked for went bankrupt after a scandal, several years ago, there were reports of teachers having to beg for food because they were not getting paid; lesson by lesson, by the hour pay contracts, no benefits, no holidays, quite undignified with no future prospects. And definitely no paid leave of absence ( I was given three months just out of kindness, even though it wasn’t part of my contract) or keeping your job open for you, nor genuine concern for your well being. I am fortunate.
Still, I feel some worry, if not exactly guilt, or regret, about what it is going to be like when I skulk back into the teachers room at one of the schools I work in next Tuesday, my first day back after all this time. Although the teachers at the university entrance exam section I mainly work in were solicitous and kind to me before the operation, giving me a big good luck card and a portable DVD player for the hospital, and several of the teachers also came to visit me there, the high school entrance exam section, far more basic on every level, were quite vexingly blase to almost an inhuman degree. I was furious with them on my last day for the total lack of interest in what was going to happen to me. I am not narcissistic enough to assume that my tedious health issues should be great cause for other people’s attention, particularly seeing how busy they always are, plus with all the paid holiday I get compared to them (as a yearly contract worker I get the holiday, which is precisely why I took the job and why I can write this blog and actually have a life, unlike them), but not the bonuses, the pension, the health insurance, I suppose they just assumed ah yes, there he is, the hoity toity Englishman, off from work again, the unindustrious bastard, so perhaps there was some kind of resentment towards me I don’t know, but even though everyone knew that I was in a lot of pain and that I was about to have some quite scary sounding surgery, no one, except one very cultured man I get along well with and who came to see me after my operation, said so much as a good luck, a hope you get well soon, or even a grunt of human decency as I tidied my text, took my things, and walked out of the school.
Which is why, when I then got an email saying that the entire office of that very same high school section was going to come and visit me in hospital after the operation a few weeks later, I flipped and said no way, because the idea was completely intolerable to me.This is actually a very big faux pas in Japanese society; things are done a certain way and you have to abide by these rules, but I was so infuriated by the hypocrisy of the situation – people only doing something out of duty when they don’t even particularly like the person involved even though they had the opportunity to show concern a long time before, that I told my boss that I didn’t want visitors and wouldn’t see anybody. I weighed up the situation; accepting something just to keep the status quo, having a motley bunch of bad smelling worn out slave teachers filling up my hospital room and going through the motions with them, but at that time I was so fragile and neurotic I knew that no matter what happened I couldn’t possibly bear it for even a minute, let alone an hour, and when I get like this I will do anything it takes to prevent something intolerable from happening to me, no matter what the consequences. I become a total nutcase. I don’t regret it, exactly, but even so, it will be quite embarrassing having to face these people; the incident will create yet another level of enamel, or plaque, between us, yet another barrier preventing me from ever getting close. Still, I only have to teach in that place one day a week, and the other schools are far more sophisticated and welcoming. Wednesday should be a totally different situation altogether.
I regret, quite a lot though, that I am going back in such bad shape. Not spic and span, ‘fixed’ with my brand new shining legs. Is it my fault? It’s hard to say. How much responsibility does the patient have for his or her post operative progress and rehabilitation? I did everything that I was told to do. Perhaps I was just too in love with my young physiotherapist to be listening properly to what he was saying I should do at home as my post-operative exercises (this I feel a lot of guilt about, if not regret; it may have hurt Duncan, how much, who can say, he never would – he has had his own crush in the past, a harmless, unacted upon one, just like this, but still; though I knew that nothing was ever going to come of it, which is why I wrote about it, to kill it in sunlight, and it was probably just some form of Florence Nightingale Syndrome, when sheer dependency and vulnerability can make you feel so emotional, in retrospect I feel that it was mutual; not the deep geological strata that I have with my loved one – and it has been a full on Summer Of Love in recent months – but more like a shallow lake of beautiful clear water shimmering near the surface that I had to wrench myself away from, just because. Still, it may have clouded my judgement about how good exactly he was as a physiotherapist when I think about it now; both of the people that treated me at that original hospital helped to get me back on my feet, so I am intensely grateful to them, of course, but the lack of a clear post-hospital programme once I got back home – I was just given generic exercises that I don’t think were sufficient to strengthen the muscles that needed strengthening – and in full disclosure, was I even doing them all diligently enough in the first place? You know my innate laziness… I don’t know…..)
Whoever is responsible, something isn’t working right; the x-ray displays perfect growth of the new bones, but it doesn’t show the muscles, and the tendons. Maybe I have wrecked my knees with my stupid, grotesque, Burning Bush dancing?
I was finally able to attend the most recent screening of Duncan and Yukiro’s comedy horror film Girl Goned on August 11th, having missed the premiere and other showings while I was in the hospital (even if I did watch it on my phone as the events unfurled live on my screen). It was fantastic to be finally out in Tokyo again, with a whole group of friends, most of us dressed up in costumes, me as my character/ alter ego, Burning Bush who is the foulest villain of the movie, and walking through Shinjuku in that get up at 2am in the morning, bathed in neon, stopped and photographed and smiled at by random strangers was surreal and peculiarly liberating after all these times just stuck on the rented kitchen bed at home like some down on his luck geriatric. Recently, I have just felt so encumbered and ungainly with my walking, like Frankenstein, and though this character also was using sticks, they felt more like props that just quite nicely set off the whole get up to even more amusing effect. In this picture (is that really me? I think I look like a mix of Madonna singing Like A Virgin; a zombie, and a pint size little rag doll, mainly because the drag queen standing next to me was just so very gigantic.)
Nevertheless, I shouldn’t have been ‘dancing’ as I was at the film party (but I was just so glad to be back…..); not dancing, exactly, but on sticks, moving about a bit – did I damage the tentative healing of my legs in the process? Should I have been just staying in at home and doing the exercises the entire summer, like a good little ogre, or should I also have been training myself to get out and about? To learn how to get on the escalators in the station, on and off trains and buses (all quite difficult at first), to get myself back into society when I knew that by September I had to be totally ready for it? There has been just so much conflicting advice and opinions from so many different professionals, that at times I have just felt like giving up or chopping them right off – go on the bike, don’t go on the bike, go up stairs, don’t go up stairs, do this exercise, don’t do that exercise, that it is impossible to know how much activity I am actually supposed to have been doing. At times it has all just been overwhelming.
Which leads us to another thing that I definitely do feel guilt and regret about – not losing weight. This, obviously, is a major way to make the burden on the knee joints much lighter, and leading to less pain (and less bullying at work; yes, I am writing this sentence quite seriously: Japan can be quite appalling, really cruel when it comes to such things. People never hesitate to tell you when you have put on weight here). In hospital, on that wan, repulsive rice and fish diet, even supplemented by smuggled in choco, I lost quite a bit of weight, much to everyone’s delight, as I am considered by others (but not by myself) to be this morbidly obese shadow of my former self. But anyway, sadly, greed, gluttony, inactivity and boozing, though, have put it all back on again and more; I bought an exercise bike precisely for this problem and was working hard on sweating away those extra pounds while watching Netflix on hot July mornings and quite enjoying the endorphins but my newest physiotherapist (very good; thorough; rigorous, experienced) doesn’t think this is good for my inflamed and swolled joints right now, so again, heeding yet again the latest advice, I have stopped.
Do I regret all this? I don’t know. I don’t think so. We’ve had such fun. A blurry, and memorable few beautiful months following the initial stress of the surgery and its aftermath, which at the time was exhausting for us both (and for you readers, too, I imagine – I think this is the last time that I am going to talk about any of it for the time being). It’s been so lovely just sitting together on the tropical balcony upstairs having beers and settling into a gorgeous sunset dream state, or sinking into the new Twin Peaks series, stoked on Sicilian red wine. Nice dinners, spent out on the town. A summer of just living in the moment; being oblivious, or trying to, with the world the way that it has been; poised in the membrane somewhere between reality and somewhere else. Content. Happy.
I am a great one for natural remedies. I have been for decades. The strange thing is, I often intuit something first, check it afterwards, and then find my instincts about my imagined effects of certain botanicals to be corroborated by other sources. And lo and behold, today, after I had bought a big jar of extra virgin coconut oil and suffused it with a whole bottle of peppermint essential to be used as a pain reliever/massage oil/ muscle stimulant/general tonic, it turns out that this is supposedly one of the best home made therapies that exist for people with aching limbs such as mine (kind of obvious in this case, I know). The mixture tingles. It soothes. But most hilariously, when lathered all over my legs, and combined with Palmer’s Cocoa Butter, which I had forgotten that I had put on in other places, I smell just like a gigantic, chocolate laden box of After Eight Mints. A whole warehouse full of them.
THE AIR IS LUDICROUSLY EDIBLE.
Vintage Bal A Versailles parfum for only two hundred yen (one pound sixty pence).
Makes the thought of the soon to come Autumn and Winter just that slightly more bearable.
I woke up the other day knowing that the only perfume I could wear was Les Roses De Rosine’s Roseberry. Only. But this happens sometimes; a scent I virtually never wear, that is hidden somewhere in the back of my closet, suddenly comes to the forefront of my scent mind and then only that perfume will do, one that just wills me towards it (do you also have this? Almost a premonition?) The three Rosines that I own, all found cheaply in Yokohama, are just perfumes that I somehow don’t usually think of wearing on a regular, day to day basis, and yet Roseberry – a curiously astringent, less-berry-than-you-might-imagine, chamomile, green, and wine-note laden rose perfume with softer iris and cedar notes hiding in the background, has been quite unexpectedly driving my other half wild the last few nights – you would think we had just met, seriously – and is now suddenly my scent of the week. La Rose De Rosine, the original perfume from this house, a gorgeous, bright, balsamic and powdery violet Turkish rose that I do turn to on occasion on a sultry summer’s evening, quite amazed a friend that was over from England when I randomly suggested the other night that she try it when we were doing perfume (she swore that she would definitely have to get some as soon as she got back: like her, I also really do think that this is exceptional, just a devil-may-care jolt of life, and love, and happiness, almost giddy); and I find that even Zephyr Rose, a weirdly aniseed-topped, mintily aggressive fresh rose, a more recent release and one that I had never even heard of before I came across it (something I often now find to be the case with this perfumery) is now down to her dregs; ready for the bottle bin: exhausted. She worked quite well, though, as a guest-greeting house rose, a bathroom spray, or as an adjunct to perfumes that needed a quick rose-up. A cherry on top. A rosebud. A spritz. Odd, and a bit harsh, but nice. Fresh. French. I remember the Parfums De Rosine boutique, tucked away beautifully, all glass and filigree metal and windows, at the Palais Royal in Paris, thirteen winters ago or so, and thinking, how pleasing, all those roses, how pretty…………. but where is Serge Lutens? And yet this evening, with Roseberry once again gracing my person after a rose soapy long evening bath, and feeling exceedingly right, I am more complicit. I have always loved the lettering and the packaging, the colours, and the inconspicuousness of the Rosine roses, and I know that I have quite liked virtually every rose from this house that I have smelled; and yet not usually quite enough, for reasons I am not sure of, to splurge away my income. I don’t know. There is always something else I want ; they are ‘secondary’; there are almost too many of them now; they have overwhelmed me. But what about you? Are you a Rosine person? Do you have any other suggestions? What else, what other potentially essential or gorgeous roses from Les Parfums De Rosine, have I been missing?
I wrote recently about my last exploits at the Tokyo recycle shops; about the fact that you almost invariably come back home with something to add to your collection, even if it is something that you have in your possession already. Yet another Caron Infini; Madame Rochas, or a Hermes Eau D’Orange Verte.
Sometimes, though, extravagantly gorgeous things turn up in these places, even if you don’t actually find them yourself. Zubeyde, my psychic friend who loves perfume as much as me and also has faster access to it than I do living in the heart of all the action (rather than down here among the mountains and the zen temples), somehow manages to find, on occasion, things like THIS – a 10ml butterfly parfum edition of Annick Goutal’s lovely L’Heure Exquise from 1984 for about 20 dollars that was wrapped in some cellophane shouting FACTICE! FACTICE! IT’S A SHOWROOM DUMMY, DUMMY! but which, when I actually unwrapped and unstoppered the precious flacon you see here, turned out to be the real thing, quite potent and beautiful, a charming little perfume that is cursorily similar perfume to Chanel No 19 in its similar uses of galbanum, hyacinth, iris, roses, and woods, but which over time proves to have quite a different internal spirit; much more powdery; pinker, warm and relenting than the sharp, green angularity of the beloved Chanel, with the accent on a vanilla-infused base note of sandalwood extract; more romantic and pleased with dusk, rather than the vetiver-leather masculinity of No 19’s more cynical, tree-darkened night.
As you can see, right now it has pride of place on one of my cabinets, in our room.
On top of as a whole other bag load of goodies (Patou Amour Amour, Coty Imprevu, Faberge Aphrodisia), Zubeyde also came down to the house that day carrying in her knapsacks with her a HUMONGOUS bottle of pristine condition Jicky eau de toilette (which I had never actually experienced before, I am only familiar with the current parfum); the flacon, a monster, basically bigger than her head.
And all for about 10 dollars.
It was big enough for me, certainly, to be able siphon some off quite happily into my almost empty modern Jicky parfum bottle without anybody noticing nor making a difference to how much was seemingly in the flacon (see above, on another section of my collection) – so great when you can get a refill unexpectedly like this when the sad, dry, bottom meniscus was all you thought you were ever going to have again. Somehow, the original is so much more alive, more evocative of the provencal landscape and sky; the lavender more plaintive and natural, the entire blend smoother and more lovable, dreamier, clearer and less uptight – a beautiful cream white shirt underneath, some flesh visible to the noticing eye, rather than the buttoned up tweed jacket Cecil of the current, more conservative Guerlain provision.
Thanks, Z, for letting me steal some.
But wait. The best is yet to come.
Ta Dah! says Zubeyde on the bed, as she produces her wares one at at time, a rabbit’s magician from a black velvet hat. One by one them come out, the convalescent sat hungrily and dazedly before her, his glass of sparkling cava, eyes only on the prize.
And what came next……I could hardly get over the fact that, tossed among the high street flotsam and jetsam and general unwanted detritus, pulled out from the bag like an Egyptian white colossus, was a huge, 50ml vintage extrait presentation of Caron’s classic N’Aimez Que Moi.
The drama. The sheer visual tension. The expectation, as you pull the amulet out from its protectant boxes, thick with material and heft, to unveil the, lip-pursed, corseted, Moulin Rouge fantasia that is waiting, voluptuously, beneath: : : : :
My god would you look at this thing.
And for about 25 dollars. The portentous, ivory velvet white box, sealed like a beautiful tomb.
The poetical, embossed, Parisian Grecian urn on top.
( I suppose it is the stain, here, that discounts this perfume in unstainable Japan, with its obsession with the pristine, but for me, personally, it almost adds something, a sense of history, of a person having once owned it – it has lived…)
As the gold-printed black box, hidden beneath the cream, reveals another level of Caronian security, we get closer to the perfume itself.
AAAGGGHGHHHH – she is peaking out ‘coyly’ from the sanctity of her dressing room, she knows the power of her roses
‘oh,………………….won’t you come in……….?’
Oui madame, je vais.
Et voila!!! She smells GORGEOUS.
Now that I can climb our steep set of stairs with relative ease (my healing and progress continue unabated: not perfect, I still get pain, I am still going to physio once a week and I still need to build up my muscle strength; but I walk – or plod, rather- around our house on my legs unaided with sticks;have been cooking standing up for the first time this week, am basically living normally and most definitely on the road back to normal – I go back to work in three weeks time), we have moved back upstairs, after four months downstairs in the makeshift bedsit, into the bedroom, the Japanese tatami room and perfume chamber where these pictures were taken: my favorite place in the house, and where I am sleeping so much more deeply than I was on my rented handicapped bed that, for now, is still standing unused in the kitchen.
And when I lie on the floor on my futon at night, from where I am lying I can smell N’Aimez Que Moi.
Even just with the slight crack open, as you can see, on the dresser, the smell is visible. This perfume radiates. It positively tra-la-las of love and wine and roses from its box. Beguilingly sweet, voluptuous and dramatic, this Ernest Daltroff Caron is a full, shocking pink smelling Turkish rose quivering with life that has been candied in sugared violets, lilacs and delirious musks, a million miles away from the perfume I once reviewed a while back now (from a current parfum sample) in which I wrote about death in the First World War; the dust and the must of fading sweethearts and sad remembrances. Posies and grandmothers and the past. But that’s the problem with new versions of old perfumes – I have never really understood the point of them, in truth. You should either keep them as they are, let them die, or create something new, not try to embalm a corpse that doesn’t want keeping, that wants to be sent to heaven. When you smell this, the original N’Aimez Que Moi as it was intended to be: delicious, incredibly confident and full of flirtatiously Satine pizzaz, you realize how fantastic the heritage of Parisian perfume really is, how it can be so swoonsomely petalled and sweet, how the presentation – outrageous, surely – how camp is this thing? only adds to the excitement of putting it on; a perfume that impetuously screams LOVE NO ONE BUT ME to her suitors that are unabashedly hanging at the fringes of her dressing room and who can do nothing but nod acquiescently, slavishly, as they make their way, mindlessly, and submissively, towards her bed.
The last time I wrote about a perfume called London it was by Guerlain: a fruity little nothing from Les Voyages Olfactifs by Thierry Wasser that, to my knowledge, is no longer available. The vast majority of that piece, however, was not concerned with the perfume, but was instead spent savaging a city I have never really liked, have hated, even. I have always felt instinctively within myself that there is a shroud, a pall, an alienating hauteur and aggression, a coldness, to London that has always, even when I lived there, kept me at arm’s length.
That said, the sheer levels of vitriol levelled at the place on that occasion were rather excessive, even for me (not that those who read The Black Narcissus come to this website for the minced, the pastel, or the polite.) Still, some Londoners and London-loving Anglophiles were I think a little taken aback by my dark summations, which were probably overtinged by personal reminiscences, very subjective impressions, and the fact that I haven’t even lived in the country, let alone London, for over twenty years.
Splurging at will about a place where I am almost permanently ill at ease, for whatever reason, seems almost quaint and blissfully ignorant in my memory now. At that time, at least I was still a European citizen,meaning I could live anywhere I wanted on the continent. I liked this. I took it for granted. And I had no idea that this apparent certainty – the idea was possibly for us to retire to our apartment in Berlin, where we would have had free health care – would change at the whim of a pompous and privileged politician – David Cameron, now happily making a fortune giving paid speeches and living the high London life, who would gamble all of our futures on a wanton and capricious parliamentary game, betting that a national referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union would lead to a clear verdict of Stay, just so he could give his Eton educated middle finger to his similarly clueless fellow conservative ministers, people who were truly born with compassionless silver spoons in their mouths and have not a jot of an idea of how the majority of people actually live. David Cameron gambled. We lost. And all for NO REASON. For me, ‘Brexit’ was an infuriating catastrophe on a number of levels.
Like the Trump voters ( oh, that man, that maniacal Mango Mussolini who could lead us all to nuclear destruction soon with those deliberately mindless outbursts from his mouth!); like those people, the nationalistic, tabloid reading, Union Jack -munching ‘Brits’ who voted to make us leave an organization – the world’s largest economy, to which we need access in order to remain relevant in any viable way – just so that we could stubbornly retreat into a backward-looking, petty, Rule Britannia island mentality of ‘keeping them out’, leaving Europe behind, and continuing down the inevitable, class-ridden, stultifying quicksand of rich vs poor; those people have condemned us, unthinkingly, based purely on primal and atavistic impulses led by the ‘newspapers’ of Rupert Murdoch, to a future of shrinking international importance and financial hardship; a parochial, us vs them island mentality that I personally can’t relate to.
Yet despite my continuing mourning of the Brexit result and my very real feeling that it was absolutely a wrong ( and such an unnecessary!) decision that will ultimately prove disastrous for the country in the longrun as we gradually fade into global oblivion, from an exterior, and aesthetic, perspective, the shutting of the gates to Calais, Amsterdam, Bruges, and the rest of the outside world will, I think, ironically, in some strange ways, make the country (I am referring to England specifically because I am from there; Scotland, Wales and Northern Island have their own identities to contend with), more ‘exotic’, more unique and, ultimately, English. Like Japan, an obsessively ethnocentric and deeply xenophobic place that last year accepted a total of 28 refugees in crisis, the closed-offness of both nations – in its heart, Japan, an ancient and historical, imperialistic island like the ‘United Kingdom’ will always see itself as apart from all other cultures; it doesn’t remotely even see itself as Asian despite the undeniable influence of China, Korea and India in its history – this reserve, monomania, and sentimental clutching onto the trinkets and realia of culture- decorative fans, kimono, wooden dolls, teapots – will also make the twee and pretty Englishness of the fine bone china gift shop even more special and peculiar to our green sceptred isles; the London red double deckers will seem more significant, Big Ben will intone ever more commandingly, and ‘Englishness’ will be fetishized and its quaintness adored by visiting Americans, correctly visa’d Europeans, and ‘hordes’ of credit card wielding Chinese.
I don’t mean all this entirely facetiously. England is actually very beautiful. It is all still within me. It will never leave me. The countryside, the Shakespearean heritage, the old pubs, the wit and the wonderfully irreverent and rebellious art culture, all of it will remain alive and well I am sure, magnified and marinaded triumphantly inside itself now those pesky Eurocrats won’t be able to touch it. There will be an insularity, an Englishness, a clannish implosion where the garden gnomes of middle earth come alive, and pixies and fairies once again roam free in our glorious, forested woodland, and little blonde haired alabaster skinned children will hold hands joyfully around the maypole. Little England will be reborn.
But what will become of London ?Will the secretive, lavish, tax haven still be the centre of global capitalism, as it has been in recent years, where the megarich of Russia and Saudi Arabia have bought up vast swathes of land and property and invested (= hidden) unscrupulous assets undemonished? Or will it lose much of its financial clout, seeing that many countries, Japan included, saw The City as their gateway into Europe? Will they not simply transfer their wares and their services to the continental mainland, resulting in great losses in jobs and revenue as manufacturers relocate there in order to have immediate access to the European market, as they have, hassle-free, until now? Will the result of Brexit not be a huge drop in political and monetary influence? Who knows (who cares?)But even if immigration is curbed, I imagine that our great metropolis will still, for a very long time in the future, remain a multicultural hotpot of a myriad ethnicities and backgrounds, the ultra-wealthy, the destitute; royalty and the sex-trafficked; the trendier-than-thou and the homeless; comfortable, semi-detached boroughs for the ‘yummy mummies’ and their mollycoddled offspring; the ruthless, smartsuited financiers, the Rastafarians of Brixton, the Orthodox Jews of Golders Green all Moulinexed together in the unfathomable city they call home.
Bitter ex-pat pontification and over-seriousness aside ( I have actually had twinges of homesickness recently), how to capture all this, all of this history and complexity, this flux and change, in perfume?
Gallivant ( love that word : I am often accused of ‘gallivanting’ about the place by various people in my life),is a brand new perfume house that seeks to encapsulate the founder’s favourite world cities in scent. There is nothing new in this of course, as the idea has been executed several times before, but it is still always novel, somehow, sniffing a selection pack of topographical olfactive evocations and seeing if any travel bureau light bulbs light up in your head. Brooklyn, not a city, obviously, but just one neighbourhood, and thus the anomaly in the collection, is for me the most pleasing, a very upbeat, lemon-meringue white musk that is sweet and quite sassy and which puts me in a good mood. Simple, but nicely constructed, it is an easygoing blend of a lemon peel infused soufflé and a freshly washed white tee. It is perhaps easier to encapsulate just one particular zone of a city like this with an olfactory conceit than its entirety, and though I have never been there – but would like to – this kind of semi lights up my polaroids.
Istanbul, as you might imagine, is a creamy ( and moderately dreamy ) modern oriental, with all the spices, coffee, amber and opoponax you might expect; familiar, competent, quite sensual – it fills up a room – but nothing the Turkish tourist board will be promoting any time soon I don’t think; there is a flatness from an overwieldy dose of Ambroxan or something similar that negates – if unifies – the simmering possibilities, even while the general gingery goodness is still worth a sniff to the curious. I might ask my friend, Zubeyde, an Istanbul native, if this is remotely Istanbulish or not – I can’t judge.
Not too far away geographically, but quite different in terms of perfume type and temperament, we find Tel Aviv: a brassy, and trashy, white floral with endocrinic, metallic woodnotes that puts me slightly in mind of the old XS Pour Elle by Paco Rabanne. It’s kind of sexy, suggesting a lot of bared tanned flesh, dyed hair and thickly applied makeup, but it certainly isn’t classy. I know Tel Aviv is supposed to be quite the party town though so maybe for some people its perfumed namesake will have some resonance, who can say. I somehow doubt it though.
As for Gallivant’s London:
“It’s addictive, big, soaring, down to earth, and has a wicked sense of humour. It’s a wet spring. Roses from Columbia Road. Georgian architecture. A hint of dustiness. An earthy, lush wetness you can almost taste. East End Boys and West End Giris. Second-hand leather jackets. Creative, new, old, beautiful, ugly, rich, poor. All rubbing along.”
If this all sounds quite promising, the olfactive cold rainy dawn of reality (god, British Mondays in winter working in London, it’s a miracle I ever got out of bed), – is a slightly salty, aquatic rose : light, quite uplifting, with an almost oudhish, smoky subtext lying somewhere beneath the chemicals ( presumably the leather jacket as you huddle at the bus stop), plus cucumber, wet puddle topnotes, all fresh, bedazzled, and slightly disturbing. While I do personally associate the whole m’lady, curtsying, thatched Elizabethan Rose with England, in a very positive way -I have a thing about traditional floral talcs, for example, Yardley included; there is something so beautifully pure and uptight about the soaps and smells of a traditional English bed and breakfast ( none of the feline animality of the Parisians, dripping in civets, and in musks – we like our bedspreads and soap dishes to smell as rosy and matinal as Jane Austen novels) – I am not entirely convinced that this ‘rose by the estuary’ leather jacket malarkey entirely works, at least not for me personally. I don’t know. I think London is just too grandiose, yet also slippery and ungraspable, ultimately, to be pinned down by something so effervescent and slight.
Someone who definitely knows, and really loves, London, is Roja Dove. The former, mad Guerlainophile who famously blagged his way into the company as an obsessive young fanboy and then became England’s most talked about and famous nose, is the founder of the Harrods Haute Parfumerie, still curated by him, as far as I know, and which is a must stop for any perfume person shopping and parading their way around the Big Smoke on a Saturday afternoon. A hushed, and gilded, Aladdin’s Cave on the fifth floor of the lauded, if claustrophobic, establishment owned by Princess Diana’s lover, where a perfume lover can glide about hushfully on silent carpets and a consortium of black mirrors; sample, and dream- of having enough money to be able to actually buy something there (no, I exaggerate : yes, there are exclusives in Baccarat crystal and the likes of Xerjoff, but the rest of the fragrances are just expectable niche prices),
; still, this is certainly not your average high street counter. The eponymous fragrances are not at all bad either – well blended with a general integrity, plush; and London is recognizably yet another such perfume from the stable. Rich, luxuriant, balsamic, oriental, this is essentially an Anglified Tom Ford Noir = Guerlain Heritage; lavender, tonka, vanilla, amber, woods, and at first I did think heLLO, this is something I am going to wear come winter, probably quite a lot, my kind of perfume, even if something was niggling me in my subconscious about it as it gradated on my skin slowly that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
That doubt emerged more clearly in the base notes later on, where a stingy fake sandalwood completely ruined for me what otherwise would have been a keeper. Where the Guerlain Heritage eau de parfum sinks into my skin like a swan feather eiderdown of quite provocative male sensuality – really, that thing is gorgeous and I have to get some more, London never reaches such heights ( or depths). It just kind of, coasts. Happy and puffed up as fat Larry ( Donald Trump might love it if you changed the name to Trump Tower). Still, it is quite nice. Our friend Karen has been wearing it during her stay in Japan this summer (she was also the recipient of the Malle Promise that is even worse in retrospect than I originally said it was), and the London, much better than that, has warmth, character, and presence that are not too shabby at all; likeable and grand enough probably to be a more convincing a portrait of London – the centre of it, the richer people’s part, at the very least. The financial hub. Each person’s London is their own though: you can live in leafy South Kensington in a big white house, or in a tower block just a few miles away in North Kensington, like the tragic Grenfell Tower that burned down in a shockingly fast inferno from neglect and negligence by the local council recently. Sometimes these extremely different worlds barely intersect, there is far less contact than in Tokyo – a far more equitable place – and it is this, ultimately that puts me off the city. When I lived there, for two long years, I always just felt pushed along the streets and the underground by the individualistic but faceless multitudes – but always lonely.
Ignore me, though. Many, many people – a lot of my friends included – do love the place:
“I had so much fun creating London, the scent of my hometown. I have tried to capture the vibrancy, dynamism and sense of surprise that pervades every corner of this great city. From the glamour of The Ritz and the naughtiness of Soho, to the power of Westminster to the simple elegance of St James Park, each element of this scent is evocative of my love for London. The iconography for London draws inspiration from the thirteen dragon boundary marks that watch over the city – the iconic winged guardians of the old gateways to the capital.”
Yes. In all honesty, when it comes to London, its charms, its pleasures, and its soul (if, indeed it has ever had one), you can, in all likelihood, trust Roja Dove a lot more than you ever could me. Really.